Pirates: Another Bloody One
We live in an age where film franchises with sequels, spin offs, and cinematic universes are all the rage now. But there’s a reason many of them never take off, and why some that do I just don’t like period, like the Transformers series and, if I’m being honest, the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Now I’m fully well aware that this franchise has a lot of fans, so to satiate the growing mob of pitchforks and torches heading right for me, do keep in mind I really enjoy The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was fresh, it was exciting, and (even 14 years later) still remains a thoroughly entertaining film. Sequels were inevitable for a film this successful, but it’s honestly surprising to me just how underwhelming each successive installment has been since 2013.
So for our fifth time at bat, Johnny Depp returns to the role that netted him his first Oscar nomination (seriously) as Captain Jack Sparrow, who’s struggling with a string of bad luck that leaves him coinless, crewless, and shipless (his beloved Black Pearl shrunken due to the events of On Stranger Tides). He runs into the son of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, Henry (Gods of Egypt‘s poor ol’ Brenton Thwaites) who’s busy trying to reverse his father’s curse from the end of At World’s End by uncovering yet another mystical artifact related to sea: Poseidon’s Trident. Apparently this one breaks every curse that has ever existed, which is pretty convenient for ol’ Jack since he accidentally released yet another one of his unknown nemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a ghost pirate who looks like he’s half drowning and half blown up and has it out for Jack for killing him years ago. So to get the Trident, Jack and Henry enlist the help of, all together now, an uber-progressive feminist in old times (Kaya Scodelario) that also happens to be an astronomer and horologist and just so happens to have made it her life long quest to find the Trident because her daddy was apparently looking for it. Oh yeah, and Captain Barbossa is also back in the mix because Geoffery Rush has an intense hatred for contractual obligations.
So right from the plot description, my problems with the film are apparent: these are all beats that have happened in each of the previous Pirates of the Caribbean films. Jack’s enemy is yet another pirate he pissed off back in the day, the heroes are all pursuing some magical MacGuffin that everybody wants including the uptight British Navy, there’s a blond-hair and inexperienced white boy developing feelings for a strong, independent woman, and of course there’s a magical crew of pirates that mean our heroes harm. This shit happens every time one of these movies comes out, and the set pieces aren’t any different. Matter of fact, their age is showing more apparent then ever.
Now this normally isn’t much of a deal breaker for me when it comes to the Fast and Furious series, so I started to think why. As I’ve said multiple times, what keeps me coming back to that series were multiple characters that are all fun and charming to be around leading to plenty of spoken comedy as well as absurdist stunts that keeping one-upping themselves in terms of ridiculousness leading to both thrills and unintentional comedy. Plus, the characters and the status quo changes from film to film, leading to shifting alliances where rivals become “family” and new threats pop up. So for five films straight between 2009 and now, the series continues to impress me whereas the past four sequels to 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl just annoy or bore me.
The first two sequels at the very least tried to expand on plot threads introduced in passing in the first film, so investment in them wasn’t too bad. Hell, I confess that the water-mill stunt from Dead Man’s Chest was pretty impressive. But At World’s End was both exhausting in terms of its three-hour run time and the fact that it doesn’t even have the courtesy of providing a satisfying conclusion for three of our main characters. Hell, we get a half-hearted payoff at the end of this movie to make up for that one. On Stranger Tides tried to reinvent itself with a new plot line involving Captain Blackbeard (who’s daughter of course had a bad history with Jack), but it looks like that whole business was wrapped up and quickly forgotten. Once again, our biggest connection to this franchise if Captain Jack and it’s also been Disney’s greatest mistake when it came to handling this series.
In the first film, Jack wasn’t the main protagonist, that fell on Orlando Bloom’s shoulders. Jack was more of the Han Solo of the film, a dashing rogue that everyone disregards as a drunk but is actually thinking at least 10 steps ahead of everyone else. But that was the thing, he was always meant to be a memorable side character, rather than have an entire series dedicated to his adventures. The films could have pulled a Mad Max strategy, where the title character merely wanders into a bad situation and serves as a useful side character in service to another protagonist’s arc; but Johnny Depp is too damn expensive and so we’re left with a series of films where he overtakes every scene he’s in.
And credit is due to Depp (despite his despicable personal life) for still being energetic about this character to this very day. However, for this installment he honestly feels like regressing on character traits rather than progressing. There’s only one time in this whole film where he genuinely outsmarts someone and he truly appears what everyone believes he is: a bumbling drunken buffoon. And while that schtick is funny for a brief few moments, the filmmakers need to give something more than that. That’s why it was so much fun to watch him dupe people in the other films like he was Bugs Bunny. He doesn’t have much of an opportunity to do anything of note here, hell his most clever scheme is ripped straight from Fast Five. Seriously, I don’t want to hear how “unrealistic” the Fast & Furious films are from Pirates fans.
But besides Jack’s antics, nothing much in this film held my interest. It’s not bad or incompetent mind you, it’s kind of there. There’s only one scene of fencing that’s filmmed in absolute darkness so I can’t tell what the hell was going on, there’s one instance where a ship’s cannons come into play and it doesn’t even hit the opponent’s ship, and the grand finale is just a weaker version of the absurd whirlpool scene from At World’s End. There’s an escape from an execution that’s genuinely well done from a stunt choreography and comedic point of view, but that was unfortunately the high point of solid action. Hell, even the ghost crew looks considerably worse than the skeleton crew from the first film and the barnacle-covered monstrosities from the first two sequels.
And once again, no character (besides Jack) gets any development time. There’s just one character relationship twist that doesn’t add much to the series as a whole or even make either character more intriguing. It’s just plain mediocre for me.
Now, I know Pirates fans don’t really care about much of this. They want to see Captain Jack on another adventure, and the film delivers on that promise. It’s not the best adventure, but it’s not the worst (At World’s End still holds that distinction). Those people will get the most out of a theater experience and will be glad to know that a post-credits stinger promises even more…even if going by this universe’s logic it STILL doesn’t make any damn sense. For non-fans or first timers to the series, really do check out The Curse of the Black Pearl instead or just wait for this to hit Redbox or Netflix. This is a decent enough…