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Non-Review Review: Pirates of the Caribbean – Salazar’s Revenge

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salavar’s Revenge is a strange beast, a conscious effort to refactor the Pirates of the Caribbean series into a more modern movie franchise.

On the surface, the appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean seems very simple. People like pirates, pirates have adventures. The period trappings, supernatural elements and exotic maritime setting add a sense of novelty to adventure. It is not rocket science. Indeed, the relative simplicity of the premise is part of the appeal, with the series tending to construct very straightforward narratives that provide a framework for set pieces and comedy action.

They should bottle Jack’s water.

It is very hard to imagine Pirates of the Caribbean having a “mythology” in the same way that many modern blockbuster franchises have a mythology. Audiences are not necessarily watching for character arcs or larger plot developments. Audiences are drawn in by the and the set pieces, with a healthy dose of Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. There is a reason that Pirates of the Caribbean will always be a notch below The Lord of the Rings on Orlando Bloom’s filmography, because the series has never really aspired to “epic” heft.

There is a sense that Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner only appeared in the first three films so that they could be tied together to form a “trilogy”, with the two sequels hastily bolted on to an original film that was a runaway success story. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was not diminished by the absence of Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom, even if it ran into other structural problems related to making Jack Sparrow its primary character.

New Jack City.

As such, Salazar’s Revenge feels like a very strained attempt to rework the series to resemble modern blockbuster cinema. As with sequels like xXx III: The Return of Xander Cage and The Fate of the Furious, there is a conscious effort to appeal to nostalgia by roping in cast members from earlier installments to make token appears in order to cultivate a sense of continuity. Salazar’s Revenge attempts to create a broad “mythology” within the context of Pirates of the Caribbean, treating characters from the original film as fetish objects due to their continuity ties.

It is a very strange and unsettling creative direction for a series that would lend itself to a more episodic and playful approach, an attempt to add nostalgic weight to a franchise that cannot necessarily support it. Salazar’s Revenge buckles and suffocates under the demands of callbacks that nobody wanted and references to earlier events that are unlikely to have lodged in any viewer’s long-term memory. The result is disorienting and unsatisfying, despite some of the movie’s more endearing set pieces.

Pirates II, plus Pirates III, equals Pirates IIIII: Salazar’s Revenge.

The basic concept of Pirates of the Caribbean lends itself to open-ending episodic storytelling. The most important character in the cast is undoubtedly Jack Sparrow, although Hector Barbossa has also made an impression. Pretty much all of the other characters are expendable and interchangeable, more plot functions brought to life by actors with varying degrees of ability than distinct individuals. The framework of Pirates of the Caribbean is such that while the films need Jack Sparrow, they certainly don’t need Elizabeth Swan or Will Turner.

Of course, there is a solid argument to be made that Jack Sparrow is not a protagonist capable of supporting his own film, as much as he might be the franchise’s central (and most iconic) character. Jack is effectively a kooky supporting character, an eccentric uncle rather than a traditional lead. Jack is in large part compelling because he refuses so many of the obligations thrust upon a blockbuster protagonist, whether through to cowardice or self-interest or sheer stubbornness.

Dead weight.

To a certain extent, this was an issue with On Stranger Tides. When the series jettisoned Swan and Turner, it never bothered to replace them. As such, Jack was thrown into the role of lead character, something that did not fit him especially well. However, there is a solid argument to be made that Pirates of the Caribbean could work with a set of rotating protagonists following a standard formula; a protagonist wanders into a supernatural situation, crosses paths with Jack, and action ensues.

The franchise easily lends itself to the episodic structure that defined so many twentieth-century film franchises, in which a character or bunch of characters wander from one similarly-themed adventure to another. Pirates of the Caribbean seems tailor-made for an approach similar to that of the “James Bond” franchise. While the first twenty James Bond films were all really vehicles for espionage-themed adventures, the Pirates of the Caribbean series could easily become a launchpad for pirate-themed excitement.

Rough seas.

On paper, Salazar’s Revenge would fit neatly within this framework. Jack Sparrow is once again pushed into the role of a quirky supporting character rather than out-and-out protagonist. He is surrounded by new characters. Henry Turner is trying to free his father from a mystical curse. Carina Smyth is trying to honour a father than she never knew by finding a mystical island. The ghastly Captain Armando Salazar has risen from his grave vowing revenge against Jack for a wrong committed long ago.

It is a very generic story populated by very generic characters, but it is certainly workable. Assuming that very few people watch Pirates of the Caribbean for the characters or the narrative, instead treating it as a vehicle for pirate-themed action sequences, there are certainly weaker story outlines. And, to be fair to Salazar’s Revenge, there are moments when the film really cuts loose and indulges in that large-scale spectacle.

When the Orlandos are in Bloom.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg understand that Pirates of the Caribbean is a Jerry Bruckheimer franchise, and so their action sequences remain very much in keeping with the producer and director’s distinctive visual style. Objects in these action sequences have mass and substance, weight and presence. It is too much to suggest that these action beats adhere to the laws of physics, instead indulging in a more cartoonish sequence of action and reaction. Nevertheless, there is an endearingly slapstick aesthetic to the big action sequences in Salazar’s Revenge.

Salazar’s Revenge is at its best in these action beats. There is a cheeky bank robbery at the start of the film that has a compelling sense of momentum, following various characters caught in the action’s slipstream. There is a delightful prop-action beat later in the film in which Jack deals with the laws of gravity, movement, and a dangling guillotine, at one point even improvising his restraints as a weapon. Although less impressive, there is a nice action/comedy timing beat involving shipmounted cannons at the climax.

A bloody mess of himself.

There are also any number of nice visuals to be found in the film, particularly towards the climax. Although the magic at the heart of film is overburdened by painful exposition, the imagery at the end of the film conveys a sense of majesty and wonder. At one point, characters seem to be walking across the night sky. A few moments later, it seems like they are racing across the bottom of the ocean. It is a shame that these action beats and distinctive visuals are no more evenly distributed.

The big problem with Salazar’s Revenge is that it seems to grossly misunderstand the appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean. Very few fans of the series were watching the adventures of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, and fewer still were demanding closure. However, Salazar’s Revenge devoted an incredible portion of its run-time to referencing events and characters from earlier films in cringe-worthy dialogue that lacks any weight or charm.

Baby Sparrow.

Too much of Salazar’s Revenge is given over to baggage from earlier films, baggage that was never intended to carry across. Both Henry Turner and Carina Smyth have deep pre-existing ties to established characters from earlier films, which makes the world seem much smaller than those beautiful establishing shots of the sea might suggest. Cameos are given over to characters who do not merit the attention. Before plot points from earlier films are brought into play, characters awkwardly explain things that other characters know, to bring the audience up to speed.

This problem is perhaps best expressed through the eponymous villain. Captain Armando Salazar is introduced early in the film harbouring a very serious grudge against Jack Sparrow, so serious that even Jack seems to have some faint recollection of what happened. Indeed, Salazar’s Revenge even teases the idea that this transgression was an origin story for Jack. Salazar boasts that he was there when Jack earned his name, “Jack the Sparrow.”

Steer clear.

However, Salazar’s Revenge is so cluttered that their history is only really elaborated an hour into the film. It is not a particularly complicated back story, and Salazar is not a particularly nuanced character. It is a piece of shared history that could be reduced to a sentence or two. There is, quite simply, no reason to hold that detail back into the middle of the film. After all, the audience has no particular reason to engage with Salazar. Salazar seems like a fairly generic villain. The only reason to push his origin back so late into the film is to make room for all the continuity nonsense.

Similarly, Salazar’s Revenge is more interested in nodding to the earlier films than it is engaging with its own story and plot devices. Countless mystical objects are introduced over the course of the film, which is par for the course in a Pirates of the Caribbean film. However, many of these items are dismissed with a stray line of exposition, often after they have served their plot purpose. This is most obvious with the compass that somehow frees Salazar from his prison, in a manner that is outlined after the fact.

“Sorry, I’m looking for the Crow’s Nest?”

There is a sense that Salazar’s Revenge wastes so much energy tying itself back to the earlier films that it has to place important plot exposition after the relevant events. As a result, what should be a very simple plot with a very simple villain often feels muddled and uneven, the plot developments and character arcs feeling arbitrary rather than clearly defined. There are half-hearted references to “ancient texts” and an artifact that somehow controls all the curses on the sea but was never mentioned before it became expedient.

There are franchises that can support this level of internal cross-referencing, but Pirates of the Caribbean is not one. The result is a deeply unsatisfying and disappointing, a series more interested in looking to a mildly diverting past than to a potential limitless future.

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2 Responses

  1. I was worried from the trailers that Jack Sparrow ended being the most forgettable part about them. I was ready for a pirate adventure, but I guess that’s not this movie?

    • Yeah, I mean the problem with the Pirates sequels is how absurdly they over-complicate what should be a no-lose proposition. People like pirates, people like spectacle, people like tropical paradise. Just go with it. Stop heaping nonsense on top of it all, burdening the cast with exposition, and insisting on stock set-ups and reversals.

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