Endless spectacle barely papers over the cracks in Disney's attempts to relaunch the franchise
Many questions arise when watching the latest adventure in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but given that the name change is the most interesting thing to ponder about the film, it doesn’t say much for Salazar’s Revenge.
Disney, whose wisdom has seen the Johnny Depp-starring saga rake in more than $3.6bn at the global box office since that cursed Black Pearl captured lightning in a bottle in 2003, will only release the new film with that title on either side of the Irish Sea. Everywhere else, Dead Men Tell No Tales as dead franchises come back to life.
Admittedly, while clearly a terrible title, Salazar’s Revenge does at least avoid the obvious plot hole that every installment in the preceding pirate quadrilogy does actually feature some form of dead male telling many tales. And so, too, with this one, with Oscar-winner Javier Bardem replacing his missus, Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz, who learned her lesson in 2011’s On Stranger Tides.
This fifth part opens with a young Henry Turner, son of Will and Elizabeth Swann, sneaking his way onto Davy Jones’ Locker to share a moment with his cursed father. Orlando Bloom, whose brief cameo at least is given some depth by the addition of barnacles to his face, advises his son to let him go, with the youngster vowing to find Poseidon’s Trident, a mythical fork whose tines can Ctrl+Z all curses on the seven seas.
Years later, the now-grown Henry (Brenton Thwaites) finds himself the sole survivor of a British navy vessel destroyed by the spectral Salazar (Bardem) and a horde of swashbuckling limbs qualifying as his crew. Bardem, so effectively creepy with a pudding-basin bob in No Country for Old Men, but lost under the make-up it took three hours daily to graft onto his face, sputters something about finding Jack Sparrow, sending the young Turner to track him down.
As for that pirate, he’s down on his larceny luck, the film’s most ambitious set sequence reintroducing the audience to the character that has come to define Johnny Depp’s career. A horse-powered bank heist in the British colony of St Martin showcases some of the visual panache Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg manage to bring to the film – not to mention the incredibly deep pockets of Disney in realising their vision – but also introduces a formula that will be followed ad nauseum for the rest of the (generously short by this franchise's standard) running time.
Heroes find themselves in danger, action occurs, heroes escape. Heroes find themselves in more danger, more action occurs, heroes escape again. Throw in a few lines of dialogue about pirate lore and plot exposition, repeat as before. At no point does Salazar’s Revenge take a breath to even begin to have you care about the characters on screen, instead bombarding you with constant action so you’ll be dazzled out of even beginning to question just what they’re doing. Seriously, along with Henry and ‘panic pixie STEM girl’ Carina (Kaya Scodelario), the film also brings back Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa – complete with the most sign-posted plot-twist in the series, despite it making no sense in terms of the Pirates timeline – as well as David Wenham as a nefarious British naval officer.
Of course, the biggest problem isn’t the overstuffed cast list – nor even Paul McCartney’s cameo. Just how are audiences, two years into Johnny Depp’s personal implosion, supposed to reconcile the actor with his performance here? Make no mistake, Pirates of the Caribbean made Depp the star he became. The 2003 hit was really so much more fun than a film based on a theme park ride should ever have been and showcased an actor with such a lightness of touch for eccentric weirdo that it brought him all the way to the Kodak Theater on Oscar night, 2004.
Depp didn’t win – he clearly should have rallied for a ‘Supporting Actor’ nod, instead – but he established himself as wonderfully charming and likeable. Neither of those adjectives applies today. Rumours of physical assault and emotional abuse in his marriage to Amber Heard saw the couple’s acrimonious divorce splashed across the tabloids and Internet, with sympathy drifting Heard’s way after several months of her name getting dragged through the gutter press.
It’s hard to separate Depp’s exposed persona – complete with lawsuits pointing to the kind of spending habits normally attributed to dictators of small countries – from Jack Sparrow, a character whose charm has well and truly worn off.
That’s what will finally sink this franchise.
Verdict: With a film that just goes round in circles, it’s hard not to think that Pirates of the Caribbean is circling the drain.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (12A/129mins) is released nationwide on May 26th.