Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge Review
Who’d have thought the real curse of the Black Pearl would be its cinematic namesake’s legacy as the only good Pirates of the Caribbean film. Yes, thirteen years and four sequels later, the lightning – or should that be ship – in a bottle effect of Gore Verbinski’s first high-seas blockbuster has yet to return. The franchise’s fatigue is keenly felt in Salazar’s Revenge, in which Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his dwindling crew find themselves on the run from Javier Bardem’s slimy Spanish Captain. A cursed, spectral commander once trapped in the Devil’s Triangle by Sparrow, Salazar is freed when his bumbling nemesis betrays a magical compass. Jack’s following attempts to evade Salazar see him cross paths with Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), woman of science Carina (Skins’ Kaya Scodelario), and former ally Hector Barbossa (a supremely-wigged Geoffrey Rush).
Seeing Rush give his wide-eyed, stomping, West country-accented character life again is one of the few treasures so be found amongst a less-than impressive hoard of performers. Our new heroine is given pretensions towards empowerment in the screenplay, but – despite an amiable turn from Scodelario – is repeatedly plundered of her agency (for an allegedly intelligent and resourceful woman, she’s rescued quite a lot) and used as a dartboard for plot points.
As insufferable and bland as I’ve always found Brenton Thwaites to be, his casting is an accidental stroke of genius. He’s playing the son of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, and it’s immediately clear they’re both cut from the same cardboard. Even Paul McCartney’s bizarre cameo as an imprisoned pirate brings a bigger smile than any joke cracked by the main cast, especially Depp.
He looks unfocused and bleary, and not even in the way Jack Sparrow should be. One entertaining sequence involving a guillotine and Newtonian physics reminds us of that alternate universe we all dream of where Depp is a newfound silent movie or vaudeville performer, not the disgraced magician whose one trick has more than outstayed its welcome. Jack Sparrow is not a character anymore, but an action figure whose ‘Try me’ function only has three phrases.
As Depp staggers and tumbles about, so too does the plot, a mish-mash of the series’ greatest hits falling over itself to get to the next set piece so you don’t have time to stop and realise it’s all total nonsense and riddled with inconsistencies. For instance, Thwaites’ character, Henry, must be eighteen years old, at the very least… but none of the original characters have aged a day. Gibbs’ mutton chops are still the same shade of silver, Will (cursed or otherwise) retains his youthful appearance, and other characters who’ve lived almost twenty years since the events of At World’s End have clearly taken to filling their rum bottles with the elixir of life.
For all their faults, the Pirates films have always prospered in their ability to be properly filthy. Teeth are askew, hair is matted with mud, clean-shaven faces are few and far between and everyone spends a lot of time dripping with seawater. This matters because it lends an otherwise overblown saga a grounded look, but Salazar’s Revenge signals the slow decline of authenticity. The film begins with lots of muddy puddles and scummy peasants, but before long the tsunami of CGI sweeps it all away, with the weightless wave of digital effects having little of the intended fairground effect. Disney also wheel out their digital anti-ageing cream, Medusa (the software used to de-age Robert Downey Jr. and bring Peter Cushing back to life), but surrounded by rickety masts and fantastical sea monsters, it sticks out like the barnacles on Bloom’s face.
In a remarkably backwards achievement, the filmmakers have managed to give Javier Bardem – a man who can make any haircut ten times scarier – the least terrifying ‘do’ imaginable. Digital locks float about his head in such an elegant display you half expect Bardem to turn to camera and purr “Because I’m worth it”. His degenerating cronies are a visually arresting creation, but offer a weak follow-up to Davy Jones’ slimy mutants of movies past.
The whole enterprise smacks of this failure to live up to the series’ best bits, and settles for repeating them. With monsters that go “Boo!”, looped music (I hope you like the Klaus Badelt original theme, you’ll hear it a lot) and half-arsed performers doing impressions of everyone’s favourite characters, Salazar’s Revenge takes a step back into the franchise’s theme park origins. We can only hope that Disney get off this ride before the boat capsizes and the audience is left to drown in bilge water.