Jack Sparrow is, at his essence, a goofy drunkard with a narcissistic charm that carries him through the most ludicrous of supernatural high jinks. I like this. I think this is fun. The latest installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales, has this. Lots of drunken narcissism and supernatural high jinks. And I like this. I think this is fun.
The new action-comedy stars Johnny Depp as the perpetually-stumbling Jack, alongside newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Sclodelario as two beautiful, strong-headed youths who fall in love and are definitely not Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom. Henry Turner (Thwaites) seeks the magic of Poseidon’s Trident to release his cursed father Will Turner (Bloom), and along the way runs into Sparrow and Carina Smyth (Sclodelario), and thusly proceeds to enter an onslaught of antics. Chasing our quarrelling three is a terrifying Javier Bardem as the undead Captain Salazar, a freaky-faced floaty-hair guy, and thrown in for flavor is Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and the British Royal Navy. The result is exactly what you should expect from a Pirates film.
I can’t resist comparisons to Alien: Covenant: both are high-profile sequels piling onto long-running franchises with wild ups-and-downs both critical and financial, and both purport to tap into the magic of their respective inaugural films, a magic lost over years of capital-driven genre rebranding. While Covenant all but disregards that which made the original Alien (1979) special, Dead Men Tell No Tales really really loves the original Pirates (2003), and is bent on having as much fun as possible in this declaration of love. Swords clash, guns fire, ghosts creep, and jokes cheek as mysteries get solved, backstories are revealed, and love (classical Hollywood-style) is found.
Bardem, as always, shines as the terrifying Salazar, a character that functions both as a showcase of acting and technological wizardry. It’s wonderful to live in a time where a character’s hair being made seamlessly to move in a perpetual submerged swirl is taken for granted. Depp faithfully delivers an expectedly humorous turn (another thing now taken for granted, though in 2003 it earned him an Oscar nomination) that’s consistently compelling and entertaining. Sclodelario very much shines as the intelligent, charismatic Carina (albeit in a narrative context trying so hard to be feminist that one can’t help but smell a cashing-in on social fashion), and Thwaites exists with as much floppy non-charisma as his analogue Bloom.
In between moments of graphical beauty are thrillingly choreographed action sequences and lovingly drawn emotional arcs. Despite the occasional unearned moment of signaled catharsis (and the not infrequent dud of a joke), the relationships flow in a compelling enough way to prove each characters’ payoff affective, and make room for the unabashed fun of ghost ships that curl like insects, zombie sharks (yes), and Red Sea-style oceanic parting. Though terms like “fun” and “cool” are amorphous and subjective, I feel they’re strongly applicable to a film like Dead Men Tell No Tales that sets out to achieve a type of “coolness” and “fun” and succeeds by most measures. Which is to say (pseudo-academically) that the movie made me smile a lot.