Most people have heard the phrase ‘jump the shark’. It refers to the moment when a franchise goes to absurd and unnecessary lengths in order to maintain the attention of its audience. The bloated Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has long ventured past its point of ‘jumping the shark’. You might recognise that point as when producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski decided to do a follow-up to the unexpectedly successful and entertaining Curse of the Black Pearl or perhaps eight years later when the utterly forgettable and tired fourth instalment On Stranger Tides appeared. But this fifth (and only tentatively committed final) adventure Salazar’s Revenge appears to understands that this has already occurred.
For in one particular action sequence, the newest crop of antagonistic undead pirates unleash a unique weapon in their arsenal: zombie sharks. And, of course, the ill-fated Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his latest unlucky protégé (Brenton Thwaites) must overcome the new threat, with the film seemingly quite conscious of the irony. Paradoxically, it is one of Salazar’s Revenge‘s saving graces: the reinstatement of that tongue-in-cheek humour that refuses to take the film’s characters, plot or McGuffins too seriously. Writer Jonathan Nathanson (with a story by Pirates veteran writer Terry Rossio) and directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have just about steadied the helm by returning to the familiar template of that first feature and despite its uninspired, convoluted plot, genuinely raises a few laughs and thrills. It by no means raises this cinematic wreck of a franchise, but it is a slightly more entertaining ride than its predecessors.
When young Henry (Thwaites) seeks the mythical Trident of Poseidon to lift his father’s curse, there’s only one pirate who can help him- the irrepressible but inebriated Captain Sparrow. However despite his audacious antics, Sparrow finds himself out of a crew and with a ship that has gone to ground (having lost his beloved Black Pearl in a previous adventure). As his long-serving but exasperated friend and first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) tells him ‘bad luck plagues you night and day’. However, even more trouble is brewing for Jack on the high seas, as the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is determined to wreak vengeance on Sparrow after being trapped within the Devil’s Triangle. When events conspire, somewhat unexplained, to release Salazar from his eternally damned existence, Jack and Henry join forces with the charming and capable Carina (Kaya Scodelario) and Jack’s sometimes nemesis Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to locate the Trident and save the seas (while Jack, as per his modus operandi, just tries to save his own skin).
There’s an inescapable sense of deja vu here with composer Klaus Badelt’s instantly recognisable, buccaneering strings blaring out virtually unaltered by Geoff Zanelli, while the plot runs through a ‘best hits’ of previous Pirates adventures. However, despite being hugely derivative and taking liberties with its own canon, Salazar’s Revenge has a mischievous, carefree energy to it. Avoiding the portentous, all-encompassing ‘politics’ of At World’s End, Rønning and Sandberg instead offer audacious action sequences amid a more personal, self-contained story that does attempt to tie up a few loose ends in the saga, unnecessarily I might add. Jack’s entrance, often a highlight of each Pirates film, is a wonderful example of these outrageous set-pieces as he quite literally robs a bank. Verbinski always doffed his cap to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns and the tradition continues in this sequence clearly inspired by For a Few Dollars More (though turned up to eleven).
Another sequence involving a guillotine has a similar heady thrill akin to an amusement park ride, even if they do prolong it for all its worth (I wouldn’t be too surprised to see ‘Captain Jack’s Spinning Execution’ in one of Disney’s extortionate theme parks in the near future). The film also cares little for its McGuffins, with the usual nonsensical ‘map-that-no-man-can-read’ plot device being established and then derided through satirical jokes (‘Most men on this ship are illiterate’ remarks Jack). There is an attempt to darken the proceedings, with cinematographer Paul Cameron’s ashen and shadowy sunset hues but this, to the film’s credit, never overburdens it.
Depp is clearly enjoying himself, though at times it appears he forgets what franchise he is in, as he performs a high-pitched slur more reminiscent of his Mad Hatter in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. There has always been an amusing self-involved streak to Sparrow, he never remembers who he’s slighted along the way (forgetting Salazar as ’Spanish captain called…something in Spanish’) yet the attempt to tie together his origin story takes away from the haphazard, exaggerated legend of the ‘character’. I put character in inverted commas as Jack Sparrow is little more than the costume, his ‘effects’ and Depp’s mad-cap, improvisational performance and this is how Salazar’s Revenge decides to treat him when providing exposition- to give us a flashback that shows young Jack acquired the compass, hat and name rather than give us any deeper understanding of or deeper insight into the character.
Undeniably, Thwaites and Scodelario stand in as the Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann ‘straight-men’ to Depp’s absurdity, though Thwaites is merely pretty and forgettable, with none of the melodramatically performed romantic lead charm of the otherwise monotonous Orlando Bloom in that first feature (who turns up here again to no-ones surprise after it was revealed in the trailers, though thankfully unlike The Hobbit trilogy he has limited screen-time). Scodelario is fortunately more likeable in her performance. Independent, often as aloof a her predecessor Keira Knightley and demonstrating she can more than hold her own against Depp, Rush and Thwaites’ repartee. Rush, always a favourite in these films, also returns with Barbossa’s typical black humour, while Nathanson tries to give him some sentimental development amid his psycho-manic slaughtering and gravelly, mocking remarks.
But much else is retreading those old threads and any instances of excitement descends into perplexity with each overwrought action sequence, each added McGuffin, each stupefying twist and turn in what can only be strenuously called ‘the plot’. From the Trident itself, seemingly designed by primary school students and made in paper mache, to the now obligatory shoe-horned in cameo of a 60s rock-and-roller, Salazar’s Revenge sinks into a mess of narrative incoherency, torturous scenes of flat innuedo-laden jokes (where only one in ten actually work, despite McNally and Stephen Graham’s brave attempts), lazy production design, self-indulgent hark-backs and wasted actors.
Bardem, after a promising entrance of menace and sarcasm, is just dull as the antagonist. After his hilarious turn as Skyfall’s almost moustache-twirling Silva, Bardem’s clear comedic talents are squandered for a similarly CGI-ed, hunched, wheezing variation of the Davy Jones character. Instead of Bill Nighy’s highly exaggerated Scottish accent, we get a highly exaggerated Spanish one (‘Jack Spppp-aaa-rrrr-ow!’ Salazar often screams with full rolling ‘rs’). A cameo from David Wenham, using his convincingly sneering British accent last heard in John Hopkins’ The Proposition, is given little to do and ends up going nowhere. Least nowhere interesting- much like everyone and everything else here.
Salazar’s Revenge attempts to reignite the series’ past gleeful, irreverent energy but at the expense of fresh, engaging characters and coherency. But what can one expect from saga that has churned out five feature films based on a mere theme-park ride? In many ways the Pirates franchise has the same appeal as its source. Salazar’s Revenge, like the features before it, is a disjointed mixture of entertaining scenes and exciting parts, which we are propelled through at breakneck speed to compensate for the ungainly and incomprehensible storytelling. As such, the rails that drive the narrative are mechanical and simply uninteresting. I got to the end of this ride somewhat thrilled and amused, but also fatigued and uninspired- how I feel at the end of every theme park ride I begrudgingly dare to go on. Cameron’s cinematography does give us the hint that the sun is setting on this franchise, but as these films often remind us, things often have a habit of coming back from the dead.