What a strange franchise the Pirates films are. Once a surprise box office juggernaut back in 2003, subsequent sequels have turned it into a series of films known more for squandered potential than the soaring heights of its first outing. After a trilogy that became more unsatisfying as it went along, and a spin-off most people seem to have forgotten about, it’s back for another go with directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg at the helm.
The film is fighting against a tide of bad will generated by what came before it, as well as a film landscape far more saturated with visually spectacular, family-friendly adventure films than that of 2003, but somehow Salazar’s Revenge has risen to the challenge to become the best Pirates film since Black Pearl.
This film is oddly placed as a continuation, a soft reboot and a final hurrah all at once. It seems to be aware that a large chunk of its audience didn’t bother with or can’t remember the franchise’s last couple of instalments, and so, after a quick reminder of what Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is up to, we’re thrown back into some everyday Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) shenanigans.
Meanwhile, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is searching for a way to free his father from Davy Jones’ curse, and plucky astronomer Carina (Kaya Scodelario) has been arrested for witchcraft after trying to uncover the secret of her origins with science. Fate throws them both together with Jack, who has lost his way and become a land pirate, and together they search for the trident of Poseidon while dodging the fearsome Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).
It has to be said that both Depp and Jack bring a lot of baggage into the film with them, and it’s sadly the latter – the franchise’s breakout star and an indisputably iconic character – that Salazar’s Revenge needs to work the hardest to redeem. The reason Jack Sparrow became such a fan-favourite was the balance of humour and genuine danger. Jack was the loveable buffoon, but he was also a dastardly pirate.
The franchise’s strange relationship with the morality of piracy might be more perplexing here than it’s ever been, as our villain comes from the perspective of wanting to rid the sea of pirates before instead falling under one of the sea’s many mysterious curses. What we’re meant to think of his previously lawful mission, though indiscriminate and sadistic, is not clear.
Salazar is thus the weakest part of the film despite the nice visual juxtaposition between Bardem’s physical heft and the weightless character design. He suffers from being far too similar to previous bad guys, and motivations get lost along with the various macguffins that are tossed around across the generous 129-minute running time (although that still makes it the shortest in the series to date!).
Following great villains like Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, whose role is beefed up here) and good ones like Davy Jones, it’s disappointing that we don’t get slightly more from Salazar.
But the biggest and best thing the film remembers to do is have fun, which it achieves with aplomb. Both Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were heavily criticised for being too gloomy and serious, forgetting that what audiences had originally enjoyed was the sheer spirit of adventure oozing out of Curse Of The Black Pearl’s every frame.
The various set pieces in Salazar’s Revenge are visually interesting and perfectly judged, with even the brief slapstick elements far more creative than they have any right to be. The first sequence, in which Jack and his crew attempt to steal a bank vault, is an absolute delight. What’s more, it’s violent and genuinely scary again, and there are old characters, callbacks, and cameos ranging from the bizarre to the delightful.
Even if Jack’s schtick is getting tired, and it is, what’s going on around him is so solidly entertaining that it matters far less than it might in a different film. Depp is back in a co-starring role, rather than center stage where he can easily become grating, and that’s by far the best decision the filmmakers could have made.
It helps that Thwaites and Scodelario are both good, with the latter turning in a particularly impressive performance. Carina could have easily been a typical Hollywood ‘Strong Female Character’, but she is from the very beginning a well-rounded protagonist who’s clever and resourceful even when the script isn’t directly telling the audience how clever and resourceful she is.
You can imagine the two of them leading a new wave of Pirates films should they continue, but at the very least they helped right the ship just before the end.
Salazar’s Revenge is a lovely surprise, and one that could – and should – remind fans what was so refreshing and entertaining about the Pirates series in the first place.
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is in UK cinemas from May 26th.