A clever, obscure joke in Watchmen turns on the fact that in the 1950s, when the newly-regulated comic book industry were forced to stop putting out those scandalous horror and crime comics, EC – the purveyors of Tales From the Crypt – launched a bunch of new titles in other genres, none of which took off. On the EC slate was a comic called Piracy, which got round the disapproval of crime comics on the grounds that switchblade-wielding rock ‘n’ roll juvenile delinquents weren’t likely to run off sea and plunder the Spanish Main. In the alternate universe of Watchmen, which needs no superhero comics because it has actual superheroes, Piracy was a huge hit that led to the domination of American comics by pirate books. Since the surprise hit of Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003, the sequels – arriving at greater intervals – have felt like leaks into this reality of what blockbuster summer movies must be like in the Watchmen universe. I imagine there are a dozen Cutthroat Island films there too.
As has become traditional, the storyline here – by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson and series co-creator Terry Rossio – is insanely complicated and overpopulated, but offers only frail connective tissue between jokes and effects. Given that six years have elapsed since the last sequel, it sometimes has to jog the memory as to who is who and what curse they’re under – bland new hero Henry (Brenton Thwaites) is the son of the limbo-consigned romantic leads of the earlier films (Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley) and is looking for the Trident of Poseidon to free his Dad from servitude on the Flying Dutchman … pirate-hating ghost captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) wants revenge (as advertised) on Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) for something done when Salazar was flesh and blood and Jack was CGI Young Johnny … Jack has his ship the Black Pearl shrunk in a bottle from the last film and some of his old crew (Kevin McNally, Stephen Graham around to do Robert Newton impersonations), but releases Salazar from ‘the Devil’s triangle’ by pawning his magic compass (which points you to what you want) for drink. Accused witch/actual scientist Carina (Kaya Scodelario) has Galileo’s diary which she can DaVinci-decode as a treasure map … and Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) is fit in there somewhere, hauled along on various voyages of vengeance or treasure hunts.
It probably isn’t worth getting too hung up on what happens between the action scenes, but this is yet another big ticket Hollywood movie hung up on Daddy Issues – both young leads are striving for a reckoning with absentee fathers. We’ve also gone beyond conventional morality in that yet again characters who hate pirates are the bad guys – Salazar might not be a very nice guy, but he doesn’t actually rob people for a living … and the same goes for secondary sneery bastard Scarfield (David Wenham), a colonial redcoat who humourlessly wants to hang (or guillotine) lawbreakers and witches. An early sequence as Sparrow’s gang botch a bank heist, destructively dragging the entire bank and its impregnable vault through the streets, is a period take on a set-piece from one of the Fast and Furious sequels, but a bit more imagination is shown in a Mouse Trap-ish gambit which finds Depp strapped to a broken guillotine that whirls around repeatedly threatening his neck with a bloodied blade. The longstanding debt to Ray Harryhausen goes beyond the familiar skeletons – here, ghost pirates – and includes an animated ship’s figurehead in homage to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, though like most of the creatures she doesn’t get to stick around long enough to show much personality. Another set-piece features zombie sharks (yes, they’ve had a SyFy movie already) and the sea parts C.B. DeMille style in what would once have been an effects climax but is now almost a throwaway.
It’s still bloated, with non sequitur cameos (Paul McCartney?), throwbacks to bits from earlier films I’d frankly forgotten, and a sense that Depp’s Sparrow act has lost its disruptive aspect and become ossified in the middle of way too much business. But it almost can’t help but be mostly entertaining, with a few flashes of wit (a huge heist that nets a single coin, dry seadog jokes with the supporting pirates) and even heart (Rush’s line reading on the word ‘Treasure’, a sparkling star map of gemstones on a desert island). The sheer presence of ghost Bardem/Salazar – spitting squid-ink, hair waving in slo-mo and half his head eaten away – is more impressive than anything he says or does, and his crew’s trick of running on water is impressively unsettling. Directed by the Kon-Tiki team of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. Oh, and with a now-mandatory post-credits sting/sequel hook …