Dead Men Tell No Tales? If Only…

With performances as lacklustre as its script, Jack Sparrow's latest is an insult to what Pirates of the Caribbean once was.

 There are no significant spoilers in this article… just a boatload of disappointment.

THE NIGHT BEFORE…

As I type these words, it’s 2:06 AM on Thursday, May 25, 2016. It’s foggy outside, which is both pretentiously atmospheric and somewhat fitting, given the series of films the subject of this post belongs to: Pirates of the Caribbean.

Twelve hours from now, I’ll be sitting in a cinema watching Dead Men Tell No Tales — otherwise known as the film I point-blank refuse to refer to as Salazar’s Revenge. I’m excited (more excited than I should be, probably…) but I’m nervous, too. In fact, I’ve been growing steadily more nervous as the screening approaches.

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I encountered Pirates of the Caribbean: sitting in a darkened cinema before The Curse of the Black Pearl, having been brought along against my will by my cousin, utterly unenthused about the film I was about to see. As you might’ve guessed, I felt differently by the time the credits rolled.

I loved Curse of the Black Pearl, and I belong to the — to me — surprisingly small group that loved its sequels… well, the original two. True, no subsequent film has quite managed to recapture the sheer swashbuckling fun of the first, but Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are solid films in their own right — not to mention those soundtracks! — coming from a time in which everyone’s favourite Captain was still worthy of being called, as a certain heathen god put it, ‘Witty Jack,’ rather than the caricature he became in On Stranger Tides.

I have more time than most for Jack’s trip to the Fountain of Youth (the scene in which he trips in some foliage, only to then exact revenge on said foliage with his sword is amongst my favourites of the series), but the drop in quality, and performance, is painfully apparent; ‘Witty Jack’ becomes… well, a bit of a buffoon.

It’s this, more than anything, that’s behind my growing nervousness about Dead Men Tell No Tales. Unfortunately, after that pleasantly excellent teaser last October —

— things have gone steadily downhill, with subsequent trailers and clips revealing Depp’s performance to seem even more exaggerated and cartoonish than even his last. While the performances of those around him could well be fine — which, with a notable exception or two, was the case with On Stranger Tides — Jack Sparrow has become the core of Pirates films: if he’s ‘off’, the film’s off.

And then there’s the soundtrack. I always look forward to hearing new soundtracks, and, since reading this post about that of Dead Men Tell No Tales, and how it draws heavily from Hans Zimmer’s terrific score for At World’s End, I’ve been unreservedly excited for this one — bouncing off those proverbial walls, as I often tend to do. Said excitement, however, suffered a not-inconsiderable blow just a few hours ago, when composer Geoff Zanelli Tweeted out a link to an article containing the first real preview of his score.

El Matador Del Mar, aside from having a very cool title, is blindingly, distractingly, a near note-for-note rehash of Blackbeard’s ominous theme from On Stranger Tides. It may seem an odd point to make, that — hypocritical, even — praising the soundtrack for being faithful to what came before, but, in the next breath, criticising it for the very same. Thing is, the other themes the score will apparently reference are just that: themes — representing Jack, piracy and, through their son, Will and Elizabeth. It makes sense that they’re there. They belong. Rehashing Blackbeard’s theme, however, seems an odd choice given that each of the preceding films has had a distinct, recognisable theme for its antagonist(s).

Combine this with an apparent majority of less-than-stellar reviews and you send my already growing nervousness through the proverbial roof.

Still, I hope those fears prove unfounded, prove to be nothing more than the passing worries of a fan simply wanting the latest instalment in one of his favourite series to be good.

I have my fingers firmly crossed that it will be.

It’s now a little less than twelve hours until I see the film, so I’m going to head off and try to get some sleep. Until this evening…

… THE EVENING AFTER

Well, my fears were well-founded.

Sigh.

As I type these words, it’s 7:17 PM on the same day mentioned above. It’s been around two hours since the curtain fell on the final scene of Dead Men Tell No Tales (which, for those who might be curious, takes place after the credits have rolled). I’m not nervous anymore… or excited. I am, without hyperbole, devastated, stewing in a viscous concoction of disappointment laced with frustration.

Why, you ask? Because Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is, by a considerable margin, the worst entry in the series.

I don’t say that lightly (and am more than willing to let my opinion evolve with subsequent viewings when the film makes its way to Digital HD, etc.), but, as it stands, it’s the least the series has to offer — which is really saying something given that it’s bookended by a truly excellent opening and an excellent-in-concept, if not quite there in execution, ending.

I’m not exaggerating about that opening, either. With it’s beautiful reprisal of one of At World’s End’s most impactful themes and the sheer emotional weight of what’s going on on-screen, said opening coaxed a single, solitary tear to slide down my left cheek. I relaxed a little at that point, thinking that the rest couldn’t possibly be as bad as the majority of reviews — and teaser clips — suggested, but it was, sadly, all downhill from there.

As I feared, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow has devolved even further. Already a caricature of his former self in On Stranger Tides, he is, here, a complete and utter cartoon. I spent 80% of the movie wondering just who in the hell Depp was playing, because with an incredibly strange new accent and a distinct lack of appreciable wit, it certainly wasn’t Jack Sparrow. He’s not alone in delivering a sub-par performance, though: Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, usually a reliable highlight of each film, comes across as similarly unfamiliar, his best scenes — like the beginning, end, and a few of those featuring Captain Salazar — feeling as though they belong to a much better film.

In fact, the cast on the whole fails to offer anything to write home about, but given that many of the returning actors turned-in decent performances in the previous films, I don’t think any individual member can be saddled with blame for this. Whatever the quality of the overarching story, it becomes very clear, in very short order, that a considerable number of Dead Men’s issues stem from its shockingly poor script, which calls for some of the most blatant ‘stating the obvious’ I’ve ever encountered, a smattering of Hollywood’s signature brand of heavy-handed feminism, and attempts at humour so infantile that, though they do draw the rare smirk, are far more likely to cause some severe cases of eye-rolling rather than laughter.

And then, of course, there’s the soundtrack…

Going in, I was incredibly excited to hear various elements of previous scores in woven in amongst the new stuff. Unfortunately, though, with two notable exceptions, the various references were, in practice, frustratingly incomplete, often stopping abruptly just as they began to kick-in, or sounding sloppily edited together — and I can honestly say that, hours later, I can’t recall any of the truly new stuff at all.

I may have been ‘bouncing off the walls’ with excitement beforehand, but now, looking back on it through the cynical lens of disappointment, I can’t help but wonder if the soundtrack relied so heavily on the themes of the past in order to trigger memories of former glories, to distract from the relatively insipid mess that Dead Men Tell No Tales actually is.

I won’t go into why the beginning and end of its tale are so significant — you’ll understand when you see the film — but I will say that the story they belong to deserved an infinitely better, more serious film than the one Disney has delivered, a film you’ll catch glimpses of as you watch Tales, but that, frustratingly, never quite breaks through the near-complete trainwreck of the rest of it.

Early-on in the film, Salazar tells Henry that he can’t yet confront Sparrow himself because, ‘Dead men tell no tales.’

I wish they hadn’t told this one.


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