Joyce Glasser reviews Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (May 26, 2017) (12A)
An article in last week’s The Sunday Times reports that cinema chains are fighting off the competition from streaming giants such as Netflix with one-off blockbusters and blockbuster franchises that, for the most part, continue to do the business. This week the fifth in the series that began in 2003 with The Curse of the Black Pearl arrives in the UK entitled, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge. Blockbuster sequels are a strange breed of films. Fans go to revisit old friends, be reassured by a tried and true formula and to avoid anything too challenging. They do not go for a new artistic vision. According to The Sunday Times’ article, cinema operators insist that ‘a lack of originality is what will keep moviegoers gripped.’ In that case, Salazar’s Revenge should clean up at the box office.
The five constants in the ‘Pirates’ franchise are all present and in good form in Salazar’s Revenge: Producer Jerry Bruckheimer; Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow; Geoffrey Rush as the one-legged Captain Hector Barbossa with his capuchin monkey; the scenery; and the brilliant, unforgettable theme music by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer. With these constants in place and the dreamy locations on Australia’s Gold Coast more vital than ever, 50% of the movie is guaranteed.
So what about that other 50%? The writer of the previous four installments, Ted Elliot, has been replaced by Jeff Nathanson. A safe, rather than an inspired choice, Nathanson wrote the sentimental crowd-pleaser, The Terminal and a number of mediocre sequels, (including Rush Hour 2 and 3 and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull) that categorized him as a comic writer with a fantasy edge. More surprising, perhaps are the new directors. Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg were brought in on the basis of their 2012 historical-adventure movie, Kon-Tiki. These are directors who would know about making historical, period films, filming on water (or creating that illusion) creating suspense on a tight budget.
The idea behind Salazar’s Revenge was to return to the formula, tone and relative simplicity of the wildly successful 2003 original, The Curse of the Black Pearl. The filmmakers wanted to focus on their best character, Jack Sparrow, the historical context, the pirate lore, the Swann/Turner romance and the high seas. To a large extent, this strategy works and you do not have to have seen the previous installment, On Stranger Tides to understand the story.
The story has to involve a search for treasure, as these are pirates. Captain Jack Sparrow is still searching for the Trident of Poseidon, a magical instrument that gives its owner control over the sea. His immediate problem is that he’s in no position to find it. He is without a ship, crew or money, but with a serious drinking problem. This predicament is what brings him into contact with Henry Turner (Brendton Thwaites, the Prince in Maleficent), and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner series), who have their own reasons for joining forces with the disgraced Sparrow.
Henry has found his father Will’s (Orlando Bloom) ghost ship, but needs the Trident to break the curse that has condemned Will to his sea grave in Davey Jones’ locker. Carina is an independent-minded astronomer and an academic who worships her late (or so she believes) father and believes that a book he gave her contains the key to finding the Trident. She believes the mysterious map is in the stars and that she can navigate by them. In a nod to the female audience, Carina, albeit in a very revealing low-cut dress, becomes the first woman to steer a pirate ship.
When on a British settlement in the Caribbean, the British Navy attempt to guillotine Sparrow as a pirate, hang Carina as a witch and kill Henry as a traitor, Henry escapes. In a stunt-loaded escape-from-the-British-Navy set piece that is obligatory in every Pirates’ instalment, they naturally get away.
But the British are never a match for the pirates, dead or alive, in this franchise, so the film needs another villain. And it’s here that fantasy and pirate lore come into full play. For the villain, the filmmakers bet on a heavily made-up Javier Bardem who specialises in poetic souls or psychopaths. He won an Academy Award for playing a chilling psychopath in No Country for Old Men and was the bitter former operative who nearly brings down MI6 in Skyfall. It is amusing to recall that Depp and Bardem appeared together in very different roles in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls. This was Bardem’s breakthrough film and an artistic biopic of the Cuban homosexual poet Reinaldo Arenas who fled to NYC where he later committed suicide.
Here Bardem plays Salazar, a former Spanish naval captain humiliated and then killed by Jack Sparrow in a sea battle. That episode is played out in flashback with special effects recreating a young, dashing Sparrow (it’s a startling moment). Salazar, a very dead-looking phantom pirate, will be trapped in the Devil’s Triangle for eternity – or until Jack Sparrow trades his compass for a bottle of booze…
Barbossa (Rush) comes in halfway through the film when the newly-freed Salazar takes Barbossa’s opulent ship, but spares his life when Barbossa promises to lead Salazar to Sparrow. The title of the film in most territories is not Salazar’s Revenge, but Dead Men Don’t Tell Tales, referring to Salazar’s policy of leaving one man alive on every enemy ship to tell the tale. Barbossa finds redemption in a good bit of storytelling that requires Rush to do some acting. So if you aren’t looking for originality, and are in the right mood, there’s solid entertainment and fun to be had.
But how much more entertaining to have had been some real chemistry between Henry and Carina, and a witty script. Sorry, but the crew’s belaboured reaction to Carina’s declaration that she is not only an astronomer (as in ‘ass’tronomer), but also a ‘horologer’ (as in whoreloger’) doesn’t cut the mustard. Let’s forget about the fact that Knightley’s Elizabeth is too young to have a son of Henry’s age: it’s surprisingly good to have her back in a cameo at the end. Keira Knightley is hardly a great actress, but Elizabeth felt like a real girl caught up in an adventure beyond her wildest dreams, and Carina does not. And there was a real chemistry in the Swann/Turner/ Sparrow triangle that is sorely missing here.
A short coda after the end credits indicates there will be yet another installment. Some serious energy will be required to continue sailing this expensive ship.
You can watch the film trailer here: