Dis my shit.
Look, I know the Pirates of the Caribbean films have been getting a bad rap since the second one came out, and there were a baffling number of people who disliked the first too; now that defies understanding. Sure, Dead Man’s Chest is a incoherently structured trashpile and At World’s End is an overlong, overstuffed mess and with On Stranger Tides they realised far too late that Depp’s Jack Sparrow can’t carry a film on his own. But despite all that, despite all the self-indulgence and self-importance threatening to overwhelm it, there’s a core to these films which I can’t escape.
Maybe it’s because I played the Monkey Island adventure games when I was a kid, y’all know, the true inspiration for the series, so comedy pirates just sunk into my bones. Adventure games are dead don’t you know, we haven’t seen a decent Guybrush Threepwood in a long time. Also, pirates don’t get too much play on our screens either and, maybe I’m just not watching the right films, but I cannot grasp a current franchise which is more adept at creating stupid comedy action scenes.
Like, it’s why the openings of these films are always the best, before all that plot can kick in, we get one or two obviously expensive sequences which exist for little more than conveying the pure unadulterated joy these characters take in their chosen profession. Usually the first one will end up with someone getting arrested and the second will be dedicated to liberating them from the noose. This one throws a guillotine into the mix too for some French themed execution goofs. Inbetween those two scenes we’ll set up the leads and the villain, hand them their motivations, line up the plot we’re going to dance through.
Turns out that Jack managed to piss off another all powerful, supernatural, undead seaman back in his youth. There’s got to be a finite number of them out there, turns out we hadn’t heard of this one until now because he was trapped in the Devil’s Triangle thanks to the magic of Jack’s magic compass. When he trades it for a bottle of whisky they’re freed, the series on the whole has had an interesting relationship to the character’s alcoholism, which given that Depp allegedly (cough) appears to be an abuser with an alcohol problem rings a little too uncomfortable. Needless to say, we don’t get too much more of it here.
The twist is that this one isn’t a pirate at all, but a Spanish captain dedicated to ridding the sea of their scourge. He’s played by Javier Bardem, and if the character is cursed to undeath, his hair floating around him as it was the moment the last air left his lungs, the actor is cursed by this motivation. Geoffrey Rush (who returns again), Bill Nighy, even Ian McShane got to put in these wild performances as unhinged pirate maniacs. Bardem gets to talk about all the boring sorta stuff they usually put in the mouths of the stuffy British guys. That works with the Brits because Jack’s a fish outta water when he’s, well, a pirate on land, but with the central antagonist, nah, their scenes together got no pop, barely remember them.
With Jack stepping down into an effectively supporting role again we got two new protagonists who have to shoulder all the actual work of the film. Having never recovered from the loss of Knightley and Bloom, especially as their characters lost all their definition throughout the original trilogy (eugh), at this point we drop all pretext. Brenton Thwaites turns up as Henry Turner (Will and Elizabeth’s son) and Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth. Let’s be fair, these characters inhabit exactly the same orbit as that original couple, the (mostly) straight laced idealists who find themselves falling in with pirates in service of a larger goal.
Carina, an orphan, wants to follow the mysterious map left for her by her father in the hopes of discovering some truths about her identity. Henry wants to free his father from the Dutchman’s curse, and it just so happens that’s what the map’s leading to. Jack wants an undead captain to stop hunting him down and it turns out the McGuffin’s good for that too. There’s some improvements on the basic formula here, notably Carina gets actual agency over most of the stuff she’s doing rather than being dragged screaming for most of the running time. Scodelario says she worked hard not to make to character too much of a Mary Sue, lol, but she’s been doing good work since Skins and holds up the home end here.
Aside from that the recreation is damn near beat for beat. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg wisely step back from some of the racist caricatures we’ve seen in the earlier films, though such a waste to get Golshifteh Farahani and give her nothing to do but be a shitty witch, film still hates just all non-conventionally attractive women, in one real uncomfortable scene in particular.
I’d care more if the first one weren’t the best. I’d care more if Pirates were ever so fantastic and revolutionary that it were disgusting to see it retread old ground in this way. All it’s ever needed to be is functional, just need a steady framework into which to slot those gems we all go to a Pirates movie to see. Sure, this time around they don’t all sparkle so bright, but there’s enough of them there for me to think of making some pirate treasure goof.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is currently screening in UK cinemas.