It’s easy to forget the unexpected success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Based on a simple theme park ride and starring an uninspiring collection of over-the-hill actors and fresh-faced unknowns, The Curse of the Black Pearl took everyone by surprise, birthing a ginormous franchise with its wildly exhilarating, raucously bonkers tale of double-crossing, yet cheekily heroic, pirates, all powered by a mesmerising lead performance by a resurgent Johnny Depp.
After three sequels of rapidly sinking quality, Salazar’s Revenge is an ambitious bid to recapture some of that anarchic spark and spirit. And while it doesn’t quite reach the swashbuckling heights of the original movie, it’s an exuberant return to form for the long-running series that represents one of the few pleasant surprises during an otherwise dispiriting summer blockbuster season.
The introduction of some new blood to the cast certainly helps to liven things up a bit. In a snappy and moving pre-credits sequence, we’re introduced to a 12-year-old Henry Turner who’s searching the world for a way to free his father from the curse that has trapped him aboard the Flying Dutchman. We then skip ahead nine years to find a manly Henry locked away in the brig of a burning ship that’s under attack by an army of undead pirates, led by Javier Bardem’s seethingly evil Captain Salazar.
The one-time ruthless pirate hunter forces Henry to help him escape eternal purgatory inside the Devil’s Triangle so that he can seek revenge against the man who put him there: the infamous Captain of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow. Desperate to rescue his father from his own curse, Henry instead teams up with spirited astronomer Catrina to save Sparrow and track down the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which has the power to free his father.
Though the plot recycles many plot points familiar to previous outings – the vengeful villain trapped in a death-like state; the two young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks; a quest to find a magical McGuffin with nebulous powers – it goes about retelling them with an unfettered enthusiasm, adventurous spirit and an imaginative love of nautical-based smut, the kind of which has been sorely missing from the series of late.
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who landed the job off the back of their wondrously crafted sea-faring adventure Kon-Tiki, also bring some fresh invention to the action set pieces. Standout sequences include a calamitous bank heist (featuring a bank being dragged through a town by horseback), Depp coming perilously close to being beheaded by a gyrating guillotine, and an unsettling encounter with a school of zombie sharks that’s not nearly as naff as it sounds.
What a shame, then, that nearly all the main characters also happen to be a bunch a lifeless bodies, fruitlessly thrashing around the water with little hope of making a memorable impact on proceedings. Brenton Thwaites’ Henry is the worst served. Having been framed from the start as the hero of the story, as soon as a rum-addled Sparrow staggers onto the scene he’s swiftly forgotten, along with a potentially moving arc about his lifelong mission to reconnect with his absent father. It’s almost like Thwaites was chosen solely because he’s handsome enough to convince as the fruit of Orlando Bloom’s loins.
In fact, Jeff Nathanson’s script is littered with intriguing plot points that infuriatingly fall by the wayside. Sparrow’s dimming hopes of recapturing his past glories, a newly bling Captain Barbossa’s (Geoffrey Rush) reunion with a lost child, the fumbled love affair between Henry and Catrina all seem to get thrown overboard and are never seen again. There’s even an entire Naval fleet that spends the movie chasing after the various motley crews of duelling pirates for absolutely no reason at all.
Only Kaya Scodelario’s precocious orphan Carina escapes with any credit. Intelligent, courageous and wilfully belligerent to all those around her, Carina is the real driving force of the movie, dragging to rest of this ragtag band of sorry scoundrels along with her as she cracks the long-held secret of the trident’s hiding place. There are many parallels to be drawn between Carina and Keira Knightly’s Elizabeth Swann – both strong women who break out of a patriarchal society – but the latter was often frustratingly sidelined by Depp and Bloom’s frequent sword swinging contests. Here’s hoping Scodelario doesn’t suffer the same fate in future instalments, her talents are not worthy of such treatment.
Because of this fumbled characterisation, we’re simply not persuaded to invest in what’s at stake for our would-be heroes and the finale feels listless and weightless as a result, with moments of heroic triumphs and emotionally devastating losses failing to have the intended impact.
And that’s disappointing as it dampens what’s otherwise a triumphant return to form for Pirates of the Caribbean. It might not be the most original effort, but Salazar’s Revenge recaptures much of the simplicity and charm of the first movie, without skimping on the invention and silliness. Although further sequels are by no means guaranteed, even in this era of cookie-cutter follow-ups, there’s plenty on show here to suggest this swashbuckling franchise is far from sunk.
Runtime: 129 mins
Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson
Stars: Johnny Depp, Brendan Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Javier Bardem
Star rating: 3/5