Friday, May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — Droll skullduggery

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for considerable fantasy violence and mild suggestive content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.26.17

Assuming Disney is telling the truth — that this truly is the final Pirates of the Caribbean entry — the franchise is leaving the stage on a strong note. 

Carina (Kaya Scodelario) tries to maintain her composure, as Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny
Depp, far left) hints at dire results if she refuses to answer his questions, while Marty
(Martin Klebba, center left) and Scrum (Stephen Graham) eagerly anticipate whatever
comes next.
Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers from a bit of bloat, but it’s by no means a showpiece of wretched excess akin to the previous two installments. Scripters Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio return to the better balanced blend of humor, chills and excitement that characterized the first film, way back in 2003. More crucially, co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg — who collaborated on 2012’s ocean-bound Kon-Tiki — maintain a brisk pace while (very important) keeping Johnny Depp’s self-indulgent mugging to a manageable degree.

This new film references earlier chapters while delivering a satisfying sense of closure, and — best of all — a well-conceived and truly terrifying villain, given a significant fright-factor by co-star Javier Bardem. Having set his own standard for disturbing evil in No Country for Old Men, Skyfall and The Counselor, here Bardem oozes wrathful malevolence at a level likely to terrify some of the younger viewers certain to drag their parents into the theater.

Although this film is laden with violence, Rønning and Sandberg (mostly) keep the carnage to a family-friendly level; there’s no gore and very little blood, with the slicing and dicing limited to quick sword thrusts. Plenty of nameless sailors, soldiers and pirates meet unhappy ends, but somehow the core characters — and the half dozen or so supporting players who’ve become familiar — always seem to duck at the right moment.

A prologue finds young Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan) rowing out to a certain spot in the moonlit ocean, where he times the reappearance of the ill-fated Flying Dutchman, the legendary ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever. Unhappily, its crew includes Henry’s father, Will: a sad fate for the stalwart character Orlando Bloom played so well in the first three films.

Fear not, Henry tells his father; I’ll find Poseidon’s fabled magical trident, rumored to have the power to eradicate all ocean-bound curses.

Flash-forward a number of years, and Henry (now played by Brenton Thwaites) has become a ship’s mate with the British Royal Navy, stationed in the Caribbean colonial town of St. Martin. Despite his warning — Henry having read up on such things — his ship’s captain ventures into the dread Devil’s Triangle, and a fateful encounter with the imposing Silent Mary, the ghostly galleon commanded by the terrifying Capt. Salazar (Bardem) and his cadaverous crew.

Henry is the only survivor, having been spared by Salazar in order to “tell the tale.” Alas, back in St. Martin, Henry is branded a mutinous coward and scheduled to hang.

Elsewhere in this township, headstrong Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an amateur astronomer, also is about to be hung, as a witch. She, too, seeks Poseidon’s trident, for her own reasons.

And still elsewhere in St. Martin, Capt. Jack Sparrow (Depp) is so far down on his luck, that he’s reduced to trying to steal the massive vault from the town’s newly christened bank. Cue an audacious action sequence that offers laughs and property damage in equal measure.

A few plot gyrations later, Henry and Carina wind up aboard the Dying Gull, Jack’s hilariously small and shabby new ship. She’s the only one potentially able to find Poseidon’s trident, which now is of equal interest to Jack, because it’s the only way to stop Salazar. The former Spanish Crown ship’s captain based his mortal career on ridding the Caribbean of all pirates, a task he has resumed with demonic ferocity, and a particular desire to settle an old score with Jack.

No surprise: Subsequent escapades quickly draw Capt. Jack’s frenemy, Capt. Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), into the fray.

Other familiar and welcome faces include Jack’s crusty first mate, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin R. McNally); the perpetually fogged Scrum (Stephen Graham) and diminutive Marty (Martin Klebba); and Barbossa’s philosophical mates Murtogg and Mullroy (Giles New and Angus Barnett). Nor can we overlook Barbossa’s beloved companion, Jack the Monkey (a part shared by white-throated capuchins Pablo and Chiquita).

Depp nonetheless owns these proceedings, particularly because — the truth hurts — Thwaites and Scodelario don’t possess a fraction of the charisma and high-spirited pluck that Bloom and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann displayed in the first three films. Depp faces more serious competition from Bardem, whose enraged Salazar oozes cheerfully poisonous belligerence, even as his features drift in and out of discernibility.

Visual effects supervisor Gary Brozenich and his team did truly amazing work on Salazar and his limb-challenged followers, giving an eerie, diaphanous intangibility to pirates with no arms, or heads, or torsos, who nonetheless possess their former corporeal ability to inflict mayhem. Unnerving as these phantoms are, their ship’s grotesquely fragmented seagulls are even more chilling.

And wait till you see Salazar’s pet sharks...

Depp’s Jack remains unperturbed by all of this, aside from occasional girlish squeals of terror that he’s careful never to unleash within earshot of his crew. Needless to say, Depp has his character down to the last smugly insouciant detail, swanning from one scene to the next in a rum-soaked haze, his eyes never quite focusing, choosing his words with the exaggerated care of a career souse who struggles for a façade of dignity that fools nobody.

It remains a wonderfully droll marriage of actor and part, and — also important — each time Jack’s debauched behavior tests his crew’s loyalty, he pulls off a miraculous and well-timed save.

Rush has an equally great time with Barbossa, now grown wealthy and lazy as commander of the late Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. Barbossa is a creature of cunning and guile, even when confronted by ghastly ghosts, and Rush always lets us know, with his shrewd gaze, that the veteran pirate has another ace up his sleeve.

It was clever to make Carina a science-trained disbeliever of things supernatural — the skeptical Scully to Henry’s Mulder — and we eagerly anticipate the inevitable moment when Carina is forced to re-evaluate her views. But Scodelario doesn’t bring much else to her role, and Thwaites brings even less to Henry. They’re attractive performers who look good on camera, but their characters aren’t very interesting.

More critically, they never sell Carina and Henry’s mutual attraction, which feels more like a script contrivance than something that blossoms organically.

Nigel Phelps’ production design is quite impressive, from the various ships — each unique — to the remarkable scope of St. Martin. Costume designer Penny Rose is kept equally busy with all the pirate garb, most particularly Jack’s riotously foppish duds, Barbossa’s outlandishly opulent attire, and Salazar’s tattered but still somehow resplendently regal military threads.

Composer Geoff Zanelli’s thunderous orchestral score adds a buoyant note to all the action and suspense scenes, with numerous echoes of the iconic “Pirates” theme. Zanelli clearly understands the territory, having worked alongside Hans Zimmer on the first four films.

Everything builds to a grand climax and an unexpectedly touching epilogue: a fitting send-off for a series which — good times and bad — has left a strong impression on our pop-culture sensibilities.

Oh, and do take a careful look when Jack unexpectedly bumps into his uncle: a bit of stunt-casting on par with Keith Richards’ appearance in the previous film.

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