(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) It’s been a frustrating ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean express: While the first film remains slick blockbuster entertainment, the second and third entries in the series quickly became self-indulgent to the point of nearly drowning their considerable assets in too much chaff. Given that the fourth film was surprisingly unremarkable (with surprisingly cheap production values considering its record-breaking budget), who knew what to expect from a fifth film? As it turn out, Dead Men Tell No Tales becomes a bit of a return to form. Never mind that Johnny Depp now plays Jack Sparrow as a buffoon with few of his previous redeeming qualities, or that the action sequences don’t make a whole lot of sense: the fun of the series is back, and the vertiginous set-pieces have a visually imaginative kick to them. Javier Bardem plays a great villain, Geoffrey Rush is back in a reluctantly heroic role, and Kaya Scodelario is not bad as a heroine. Perhaps the worst thing about Dead Men Tell No Tales is the way it suffers from the contemporary tendency of blockbuster movies to over-complicate everything from the visuals to the plotting details, to the point of risking incoherency whenever the slightest detail is out of place. A slightly shorter, substantially cheaper movie would achieve as much, of not even perhaps more. But go tell that to Disney, which is holding on to the series as one of its reliable cash cows. At least the series is now headed up again … although who can really tell how it’s going to be before the end credits of the next film?
(In theaters, May 2011) Expectations ran high for this spin-off to the swashbuckling action/adventure trilogy of 2003-2007, but few expected this follow-up to be this… dull. Despite sporting the same screenwriting team than the first films, this fourth entry feels flat, unremarkable and even boring at times. The scale of everything has been scaled back (there are noticeably fewer special effects set-pieces, and not a single sea battle), while the sense of fun that seemed so contagious in the first two-third of the series seems lessened as well. The first few scenes show how off-track the film feels, with broad comedy that fails to amuse, familiar hum-drum action beats and incoherent plotting. Those who couldn’t get enough of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow will reconsider as the series tries to promote him to protagonist status, putting far too much dramatic demands on a trickster/comic foil character. While neither Depp nor Penelope Cruz as the feisty Angelica do badly, they’re not very well served by a script that feels noticeably uneven, even sloppy to the point of confusing the audience. The film even feels cheap at times, its climax taking place on an obvious soundstage, three groups clashing without much of a sense of involvement. There are a number of scenes that work well (the palm tree escape shows flashes of the madcap action sequences that made the first two films of the series so memorable), but they never sustain any kind of narrative energy. (A sequence set aboard a perilously-perched derelict Spanish galleon ends up noticeably short, to the point of cheating viewers.) In fact, the surprise about this film is how much intriguing material it squanders without care. You’d think that it would take work to mess up something involving mermaids, Blackbeard, the Fountain of Life, bottled ships, Keith Richards, Gemma Ward and Judi Dench in a split-second cameo… and yet the film unspools without raising too much excitement. Even the film’s link to Tim Powers’ fantasy novel On Stranger Tides is slight: the film is “suggested by” the novel, but it seems more like a case of retroactive acknowledgement of the first film’s debt than any correspondence to the written work. This way, at least, Powers gets plausible deniability when people will ask him about the mess that is the film itself.
(In theaters, May 2007) Oh no: Cast and Crew of the series have finally convinced themselves of their utter importance to world cinema. That’s the only way to explain this flaccid and pretentious third entry in what had begun as a perfectly balanced blend of action, horror, comedy and characterization. Oh, there’s still a solid 90 minutes of blockbuster cinema in here. Unfortunately, it’s drowned in another hour of superfluous material that advances nothing. The first act of the film is particularly annoying as the pace grinds to a halt and everything seems so important. The normally sympathetic characters seem bored, and so are we. Fortunately, things pick up eventually, once past a death-world sequence that has escaped from a particularly pointless art film. Still, Johnny Depp is fun, Naomi Harris is eye-catching, Geoffrey Rush is cool and the third act is a little masterpiece of special effects. There’s a lot of pieces in play (even if they don’t all fit together), and keeping track of them almost demands the drawn-out endings that begin to rival the end of the third Lord Of The Rings movie. I wonder if someone will ever have the guts to re-edit this self-indulgent mess properly.
(In theaters, July 2006) Hail to the king of the summer, baby: This sequel has everything a blockbuster needs, and maybe even twice that. All of the characters are back, and while it’s hard to focus on the bland Bloom/Knightley lead couple when Johnny Depp keeps stealing the show, everyone gets a good moment this time around. (Even Jack Davenport’s Norrington gets a beefed-up role in this sequel.) The adventure/fantasy aspects of the tale are pumped up, leading to a different atmosphere (one where everyone acknowledges the supernatural from the get-go) but one that is conductive to a succession of thrills. The direction is crisp, the script is tight and the special effects are astonishing even at a time where we think we’ve seen everything. Bill Nighy’s “Davy Jones” has the potential to become a cultural icon and the meshing between his performance and ILM’s special effect team is a huge part of this effectiveness. For the rest, well, what’s left to say? Johnny Depp outshines all of the special effects, Naomie Harris is lovely as Tia Dalma and the film ends up on a fascinating cliffhanger. Don’t miss any opportunity to see the first film shortly before seeing this sequel, as the Elliott/Rossio screen-writing team were able to refer to several events and jokes from the first film.
(In theaters, July 2003) Anyone looking for a good swashbuckling adventure shouldn’t look any further: This is this summer’s The Mask Of Zorro. Deftly combining romance, adventure, comedy, horror and action, Pirates Of The Caribbean has something for everyone and comes closest to “the total movie experience for everyone” so dearly desired by entire families. As a combination of all these things, it inevitably runs too long (especially in its third quarter, just as things should start to accelerate) and doesn’t exactly shines with economy at 141 minutes. But what’s on screen is well-worth our attention, starting with Johnny Depp’s delightfully oddball interpretation of Jack Sparrow. It’s a textbook example of how a good actor can take an ordinary role and transform it into something mesmerizing. Even though it’s a supporting role, it ends up being the focus of the movie, even despite Orlando Bloom’s serviceable portrait of a romantic protagonist, Geoffrey Rush’s compelling villain and Keira Knightley’s luminous performance as the lovely blonde lass. The novelty effect of seeing a big-screen pirate adventure after so many years may account for part of Pirates Of The Caribbean‘s appeal, but there’s more to it than that: It’s a really good film, with a rather good script, top-notch technical credits and a solid core of actors. Is it summer-2003’s definitive movie? I wouldn’t be displeased if it was.
(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2006) I revisited this summer spectacular right on time before the release of the sequel, and I’m glad I did: The original film is accessible to just about everyone, but it’s also a solid piece of blockbuster screen-writing. Turn on the screen-writers’ audio commentary track and you’ll find that the film is a lot tighter than you may expect, and that the layers of details eventually add up to a better experience. The film itself, of course, remains a treat and a half even with a few year’s worth of hindsight and familiarity. Johnny Depp makes the film work through his odd take on Captain Jake Sparrow, a role that could have been played straight without a shred of distinction… or interest. Coming out of nowhere in 2003, Pirates Of The Caribbean remains one of the better summer blockbusters of the past few years… and it’s just about ready to be eclipsed by its sequel.