The test for Rønning and Sandberg – a Norwegian duo whose previous film, the 2012 seafaring adventure Kon-Tiki, was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar is that the original Pirates film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, came out in 2003, so the short-circuit shock of nostalgia could have never been as potent here as it was in, say, Jurassic World, let alone Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
There’s no question they’ve recaptured, or at least synthesised, some of the essence of the original Gore Verbinski film. But the gonzo-Wagnerian backstory the franchise subsequently built up hasn’t been sufficiently pruned – and with so many characters to juggle, the story feels less like a coherent chain of events than a bundle of obligatory subplots.
And action sequences, of course, two of which really click. In an early bank heist, Sparrow and his cronies make off with the bank itself, while a terrific mid-film escape from a public execution unfolds in a kind of whirring, clockwork frenzy, and takes in some ingenious business with a spinning guillotine and the unimprovable, Laurel and Hardy-calibre line: “I’m not one to complain normally, but this basket is full of heads.”
Depp’s shtick is fresher than you might expect, particularly during these bits, the surprisingly un-dreadful Paul mccartney cameo, and some spiky, double-entendre-laced back-and-forths. It’s a pity that some later set-pieces, including the messy and overlong climax, just look like mirages of pixels. Swashbuckling is so much more fun when something’s actually there to buckle the swash to.
Knowing what’s going on also helps. The film’s prologue assumes, optimistically, that cinema-goers will immediately recall the importance of an underwater ship called The Flying Dutchman, and why Orlando Bloom might be stranded on it with a bad dose of barnacle acne.
But things pick up with the arrival of a fresh threat: Capitán Armando Salazar (javier bardem) an undead pirate hunter with a complexion of sun-baked mud, tendrils of hair that drift and float like submerged seaweed, and a mouth liable to ooze inky goo in close-up. (Bardem has the kind of face that CGI simply can’t smother, and his performance is persuasively meaty, despite his digital mask.)
Salazar wants to find the man he calls, in a piquant Spanish growl, ‘Yuck Spurroh’, in the hope he’ll lead him to the Trident of Poseidon – a weapon capable, I think, of destroying every pirate on earth.
That mission gives him common purpose with the somewhat fresher-faced Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), who needs the same magical object – seemingly a kind of Swiss Army McGuffin – to save his father from a curse. a post-credits teaser to set up Pirates VI heralds the return of another face from the past. A mostly fun partial reset, but this series needs to slip its moorings and make for new horizons.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆