Monday, May 29, 2017

'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales' review

The Pirates of the Caribbean series has run its course. I think we all can agree on that. Director Gore Verbinksi, producer Jerry Bruckenheimer, and all the people at Disney caught lightning in a bottle in 2003 with The Curse of the Black Pearl, and they haven't been able to replicate that success since. The second and third installments, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, both have their charms, but by the time 2011's On Stranger Tides rolled around, it seemed like Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew were all but finished (I say this despite a box office gross of $1 billion dollars). But even after two lackluster movies that were both overlong and convoluted, I found myself surprisingly excited to see another Pirates film after over half a decade. They're swashbuckling adventures with delightfully weird twists, and early buzz said that Dead Men Tell No Tales was a great sequel that recalled the pure blockbuster charm of the original film.

And for fans, there was plenty of reason to be anticipating this fifth chapter. Javier Bardem was joining the crew as a villainous pirate, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley make their return as Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and of course, it's always delightful to see Johnny Depp as the one and only Captain Jack Sparrow. While the early buzz didn't translate to strong reviews (this is currently the worst reviewed of the entire series), I have a feeling that audiences will embrace Dead Men Tell No Tales. Sure, it isn't the most intelligent or complex movie, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg deliver the kind of engaging escapism that I crave during the summer months. Frequently insane, always entertaining, and never dull, this fifth (and supposedly final) installment delivers swashbuckling thrills and epic action that plays beautifully on the IMAX screen. It's dumb fun, and while the series is clearly running in circles, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a welcome addition to the saga.

After a brief prologue that finds young Henry Turner visiting his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), on the Flying Dutchman, Dead Men Tell No Tales jumps forward several years to introduce us to new characters and reunite us with old friends. The older Henry (Brenton Thwaites) is on a ship for the British Royal Navy, one that eventually finds itself boarded by the nefarious Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Henry is an expert in famous pirates and mythology, and when Salazar notices a picture of Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), he asks Henry to relay him a message- death is coming. Next thing Henry knows, he's in a hospital ward in St. Martin about to be hanged for high treason. But he'll have help- Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is also in trouble with the law for witchcraft, but she's crafty enough to help herself and Henry escape. Carina is searching for the Trident of Poseidon with a book left by her father, and coincidentally, Henry wants the Trident as well, in the hopes of freeing his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman.

Oh yeah, I forgot to talk about Jack. When we find our beloved Captain, he's washed up, drunk in the middle of a heist that is being orchestrated by his crew. After the robbery goes wrong, Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally) and the rest of Jack's loyal friends decide it's time to go their separate ways. Jack ends up in prison as well, eventually forced to team up with Henry and Carina to find the Trident. Meanwhile, Salazar finds and entraps Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), forcing him to assist in the search for Jack. The result is what you've come to expect from Jack Sparrow and the rest of his friends- action, sea battles, a little bit of romance, and a mythological conclusion with a healthy dose of madness.

As you can likely tell from that plot synopsis, story comes second in Dead Men Tell No Tales. The negative reviews are completely understandable, as this film's narrative is a mess that tries to do too much and accomplishes far too little. Character motivations range from simple to flimsy, few undergo actual arcs, the mythology of the Trident of Poseidon is as muddy as anything that has come before in this franchise, and to be entirely honest, there were a few times where it was hard to know exactly what was happening. The new characters are a mixed bag, while old favorites aren't exactly utilized in the best possible way- some are even relegated to cameos. Did we really need a complex subplot for Barbossa or another chapter in the story of Will Turner's time on the Flying Dutchman? Probably not.

But there's something to be said for the sense of fun that pervades this film, the sense that was missing from both At World's End and On Stranger Tides, the last two installments in the franchise that were dragged down by convoluted plotting and dull action, respectively. New directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg are keenly aware of what the essence of this series has always been, and they're not trying to rewrite history or shake up the formula at all. Contrary to popular belief, the Pirates of the Caribbean films have never been high art- no, not even The Curse of the Black Pearl. People have very fond memories of the original, but having rewatched the film recently, it's nothing more than a propulsive piece of expertly crafted blockbuster fun. The characters are fairly shallow and the mythology is confusing, but I'll be damned if that movie isn't a blast. It shoots you off like a rocket and it doesn't slow down for 143 minutes.

Dead Men Tell No Tales does pretty much the same thing, although it's less effective considering the fact that, yes, we've seen this movie before. The fresh feeling is gone, but when done the right way, the entertainment value that this series delivers hasn't dimmed one bit. Like the original, this film blasts off at 100 miles per hour, throwing you right into the action and giving you very little room to breathe. The thought of slowing down doesn't even cross the mind of the filmmakers, and this installment is almost oppressively fast-paced at times. The result is what feels like an endless chase sequence, as characters and ships bounce around the ocean at lightning speed. Ronning and Sandberg know that the audience has come for swashbuckling action, which is something that they're more than willing to provide. And as the cherry on top, the film is utterly dazzling in IMAX 3D, and even if it becomes exhausting every once in a while, the experience of the format is fully immersive.

The key to it all is the fact that this movie feels light and charming- the self-serious melodrama is thrown out the window in favor of crowd-pleasing setpieces and witty character moments. While the series is still missing the practical touch of Gore Verbinski (who directed the first three films), this chapter is visually impressive, finding new and creative action sequences among the familiarity of the situations. There's a heist early in the film that stands as one of the franchise's best action moments, and the finale is appropriately insane. In addition, the characters are solid in a back-to basics way, and while Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites don't have the charm of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, they get the job done in what is clearly fashioned as a legacyquel. Javier Bardem and his decomposing crew have some moments that are pretty gross and scary (what this series excels at), and although I think the Barbossa stuff could have been handled better, Geoffrey Rush is still a crucial asset for this series. And of course, there's Depp. Captain Jack Sparrow is perhaps a bit too drunk in the early goings (I literally couldn't understand what he was saying), but it's still fun to watch Depp play this character.

Are we pretty much done with Pirates franchise at this point? I would say so. This is a satisfying conclusion, and while there's the promise of more adventures to come (an end credits scene teases more- of course), I think we've reached the end for Captain Jack and friends. But is it still satisfying to watch Depp and the pirates do their thing while that iconic score blasts through the breathtaking IMAX speakers?


Dead Men Tell No Tales is far from the best that this summer has had to offer, but I had a big grin on my face for most of the runtime. It's loud and dumb and goofy, and after a few middling installments, it's exactly the movie I wanted to see from this franchise. Sure, it's convoluted and stupid, but it's also fun as hell, and sometimes that's all that really matters.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.2/10)

Images: IMDB/Disney

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