One of the unforeseen problems of reviewing movies in a sequel-heavy sea of franchises is walking into theaters with preconceived notions. It’s impossible not to wonder if they’ll be able wring an ounce of originality out of the salty chum bucket of redundancy most sequels are capable of generating. This is made even more difficult after viewing a sequel right after enduring a terrible one the week before (like last week’s “Alien: Covenant”). (Read more about the many trials and tribulations of being a movie critic in my new book, “Things No One Gives a Shit About”—soon appearing in finer public restrooms near you.)
I liked the original “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It was a fun, adventure-filled romp that launched a scenery-chewing cinematic icon in the form of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. The film was a mega-hit and quickly sequels spawned—none of them patently offensive but none quite capturing the magic of the original. The great thing about the original was how novel it all seemed. Captain Jack was one of those characters like Austin Powers: fun for a while, but eventually the same things you love—the silliness, the voice, the constant mugging to the camera—begins to grate your nerves.
I was not thrilled with the fourth installment, “On Stranger Tides,” which felt bloated and convoluted. For some reason the middling “Pirates” sequels focused on a handful of things:
1. Ghost and/or cursed pirates;
2. Extremely complicated plots involving a thing that needs to be obtained in order to stop ghost pirates;
3. An overly complicated secondary villain (usually the British Navy), adding an unnecessary layer to the narrative;
4. Over-the-top action set pieces.
“Dead Men Tell No Tales” uses the exact formula. There isn’t an ingredient in it that hasn’t been used again. However, I think I may have cracked the sequel code and discovered how to make the franchise fresh again.
Normally, in the world of sequels, studios double down on whatever works. People liked Captain Jack Sparrow, right? Let’s give them more Captain Jack Sparrow. There’s a scene in the third film (“At World’s End”) that literally delivers so many Captain Jack Sparrows, I began to question my sanity and especially the sanity of whomever thought it was a good idea. “Dead Men Tell No Tales” has proven the formula can still work when the ingredients are added sparingly.
The story opens on a young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) trying to find a way to reverse the curse beset upon his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), two films back. He believes if he finds the legendary Trident of Poseidon he can break all the curses that have befallen hapless travellers and pirates. The key to finding the ancient treasure is in the hands of a beautiful young scientist, Carina (Kaya Scodelario). Henry, Carina, and Captain Jack are all about to be executed for various wrongdoings against the commonwealth, before they decide to team up to find an all-powerful, curse-breaking treasure.
Jack might need it more than anyone, seeing as an old nemesis has been freed and is hellbent on murdering Jack in a number of horrible ways. Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his crew have been trapped in a hellish undead nightmare and have found freedom, thanks to a costly mistake Jack made at a particularly desperate time.
It’s ridiculously straightforward storytelling, creatively economical in a way that sometimes greatly benefits the film and other times exposes its thinly written story. All the ingredients are there, but they are peppered on so lightly, it never spoils the broth. For example, when Carina is introduced, we’re treated to an expository scene that basically lays out her entire character in about two minutes: She’s a woman of science—educated women aren’t appreciated in this time, so people think she’s a witch. Some might find this underwritten introduction a detriment, but how much time do filmmakers need to spend getting new characters into the mix? I was rather appreciative they didn’t spend a laborious amount of time slowing down the main story for a character I’m going to have a limited amount of interest in, no matter how much time they spend on the introduction.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” works because of its simplified nature. It’s a fun, meaningless, big, goofy summer spectacle. Thanks to my extremely low expectations, I really enjoyed myself. More sequels need to embrace this model. Use formulaic elements sparingly. I would never go so far as to call the fifth movie a work of art, but I’ve suffered through blockbusters far more grating than this.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem
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