Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"

If you can keep the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie straight, your cinematic compass is keener than mine. They made four of them in nine years, then none for the last six, so they merge together in a dim fog of sameness.

I remember the first one seemed fresh because it was a typical big special effects summer action bonanza set apart by Johnny Depp’s dizzy, daffy turn as the addled Captain Jack Sparrow. He quickly supplanted the ostensible stars of the franchise, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, to the point they didn’t even appear in the last one, and only make brief cameos in the fifth edition, “Dead Men Tell No Tales.”

It’s more of the same: crazy stunt set-pieces, supernatural threats, a brief foray into town for robbing and wenching, a couple of rousing sea battles and whole lot of sozzled Jack stumbling through it all.

He’s the most inept hero of any movie franchise I can think of. Imagine Luke Skywalker being really clumsy, swinging his lightsaber around drunkenly and accidentally decapitating Ewoks left and right.

Javier Bardem is the newest villain as Captain Salazar, a former pirate hunter who’s missing part of his head, and all of his soul. The “Pirates” bad guys are defined more by their special effects than their characteristics, since they’re all undead or seeking immortality, despise Jack Sparrow and need him, one of his trinkets or a piece of lore from him to get what they want.

The effect for Salazar and his crew is pretty spectacular: they’re actually missing pieces of their bodies, as if parts of them have been erased. Salazar’s got no back of his head, his skin is cracked like old plaster and oozing blood, and his hair swirls in a ghostly nimbus around his head as if he’s underwater.

Some of his crew are missing arms, legs, even entire heads or chunks of their torsos. One guy appears to be just a shoulder and a hip.

The fresh new young faces are Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites as, respectively, Carina, a curious girl whose love of science keeps getting her branded a witch, and Henry Turner, the grown son of the Bloom and Knightley characters, and doesn’t that just make us all feel old. They get to spend the movie arguing and denying their obvious infatuation.

Geoffrey Rush turns up again as Captain Barbossa, who through the series has been a zombie, then just a human villain, then a privateer in service to the British crown, and now is just back to being a pirate again. He’s worried about Salazar cutting his fleet to shreds, so he decides to seek him to reach an accord and serve Jack’s head on a platter.

It’s a fun, giddy movie that only works if it doesn’t stop moving long enough for you to think about how the different pieces fit together. For instance, it’s weird that the local British officer (David Wenham) is hell-bent on executing Carina for supposedly being a witch, but is happy to recruit a real one (Golshifteh Farahani) to track down Sparrow.

A few moments that stand out: we learn the origin of all those quirky bits ‘n’ pieces that make up Jack’s accoutrements; some rotted shark carcasses get reanimated by Salazar and set to snapping; and a daring Carina doffs her stuffy long dress to swim to safety. “I saw her ankles!” Henry crows.

Co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson keep things moving at a brisk pace, feeding Depp plenty of moments for his little woozy reactions and quips. Interestingly, if you think about the plot you realize you don’t really need Jack Sparrow to make it all work.

He’s the oddball bit of grease that keeps this pile of claptrap turning long after it had any business embarking on another voyage.

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