By Daniel Glassman (Los Angeles, CA, USA)

 

In the summer of 2003, hot off the success of Bryan Singer’s X2: X-Men United and the divisiveness of Ang Lee’s ambitious Hulk, the modern superhero phenomena was just getting started, and only beginning to cement it’s footing at the heart of pop-culture zeitgeist. What’s surprising is, in addition to those films, a series recounting the tales of a drunken swashbuckler and his supernatural antics (somehow based on an in-house Disneyland ride) was about to be released. That film would have a 5-day opening of $70M and go on to make a whopping $305M in North America alone, and thus, was too just getting started. Here we are 14 years later with the release of its fifth installment.

What’s even more surprising is… we should be glad we’re here.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is not an excellent film, but its bizarre and questionable position in the slate of 2017 tentpole releases is an essential pause that audiences just might need right now — even if they don’t realize it. This is not because the film is original (Spoiler: it’s not) or even because it paves the way for an inspired future to the franchise. If anything, it does the very opposite, resting its beats and final moments in plotting that has been tread before in this very series. Though in a world otherwise consumed by non-stop reboots of an unnamed web-slinger, the constant world-ending climaxes, and those catastrophic beams of light launching into the sky for the n’teenth time, the retread of POTC 5 is somehow well deserved, somehow refreshing.

The story follows Henry Turner (Brendon Thwaites), Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) and, of course, a down-on-his-luck Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) on a quest to retrieve the Trident of Poseidon while they escape undead sailors lead by the evil Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is also in the mix, and depending on the time is either after the Trident for himself or to help our heroes. There’s a lot going on, and it’s not always coherent or particularly necessary. Jokes overstay their welcome and not all of the one-liners land. Alas, I dare to use a word condemned for its simplicity to describe just why the film ends with a rapturous sense of class, just as the first did… the movie is damn fun.

In terms of stakes, the search for Poseidon’s Trident is the grandest the story ever gets. The MacGuffin of the film is relatively condensed, as its acquisition will finally allow Henry to free his father’s (Orlando Bloom) damnation to the Flying Dutchman. Just as the search for Davy Jones’s heart in POTC: Dead Man’s Chest allowed Will Turner to free his own father, that same lineage continues here, and the quest for the Trident doesn’t mean much for anyone other than our main characters. Henry wants to free his father, Carina wants to complete her own father’s map (Because family!), and Sparrow just doesn’t want to get slaughtered by Salazar. Our characters are on a quest for themselves, which again, compared to the onslaught of nth films that slump from instruction to mid-battle to numbing climactic aerial battle, this scale reduction feels rare, almost dated, and certainly exemplary of a version of franchise filmmaking that is all but dying.

While it’s difficult to say the film deserves praise even if it borrows so much from the franchise’s first installment, that retreading is precisely what works in the film’s favor. The decision to tell a Pirates of the Caribbean story that with stakes that avoid exhaustion by not extending beyond our characters (And thus don’t threaten the fate of the world) can’t help but feel classy in a time where few blockbuster films feel so simple.

As the post-credits scene alludes to, maybe we will in fact see a Pirates 6 (If those international numbers pan out). But if we don’t, and Dead Men Tell No Tales marks our official final point of reflection for the venerable saga, it would be a worthy arc indeed. And with each passing year, it would most likely only stick out further as a movie that seemed quite too out of place to have worked as well as it did.

Rating: 4/5

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