Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Pirates of the Caribbean Edition

*Last Updated: 6/18/2022

The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise now has five entries and is so popular that it is easy to forget that Disney was taking a leap in the dark in 2003 by giving Gore Verbinski and a handful of writers the task of turning their famous theme park attraction into a major film franchise. My first interaction with the franchise didn't start well as I fell asleep in the theater watching 2003's Curse of the Black Pearl and didn't really care for it. It was so popular and had so many people talking that I was convinced I must have been in a bad state on my viewing and I went back and watched it a second time. I ended up falling asleep a second time. 

Despite my initial "meh" feeling towards the franchise, I initially loved the 2006 follow-up Dead Man's Chest (my love of the film has tempered over the years) and was immensely disappointed by the 2007 trilogy capper At World's End and found the fourth and fifth films to be unimaginative and derivative cash grabs. If I had to rank the movies I probably order them this way:

5. On Stranger Tides (C-) 2011
4. At World's End (C-) 2007
3. Dead Men Tell No Tales (C-) 2017
2. Curse of the Black Pearl (B) 2003
1. Dead Man's Chest (B+) 2006

I'm not here to review the films, I'm here to take a look at the action sequences. In all, I gotta say, I wasn't too impressed with the full body of sequences in the franchise. I think there's an inherent problem with “action” in these films for most action junkies like me. In general, we are looking for something to stand out, whether it is athleticism, force, spectacle, skill, violence, strategy, intensity, etc. The issue with this franchise is that the central character isn’t meant to be an impressive action stars - his character is built on avoiding fights and weaseling out of them as much as possible. So the films are forced to try and find increasingly unique and quirky ways for Sparrow to get out of trouble or beat his opponents that doesn’t simply rely upon his skill in sword fighting or his superior captaining abilities. This means the filmmakers depend a lot on the environments and finding ways, closer to Buster Keaton than Jackie Chan, that Jack escapes. This can sometimes lead to creative gold (see my #1 sequence) and it can often lead to a complete creative misfire (see the finale of At World’s End). It does mean that the sequences, outside of Will Turner who is more in the vein of the traditional hero, aren’t always easy to compare to the traditional adventure sequences of other films. 

Despite that, there are some very good large scale sequences here. As I went through the films I counted twenty sequences. I've ranked them all below and included some commentary for each. Enjoy.

All Pirates of the Caribbean Scenes Rated and Ranked

Largely bad/insulting sequences that have at some kind of redeemable quality 

24. “Finale: Showdown with Beckett's Fleet” -Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
- Commentary: The maelstrom setting (initiated by Calypso) is certainly an attempt to up the epic setting for this trilogy finale, but it unfortunately makes the entire sequence utterly dependent on CGI – which ends up undercutting a sense of grounding in real practical settings - an ingredient of the best sequences of the franchise. The setup of a final round of double crosses and heel turns feels so arbitrary and wild and crazy by this point in the film that it’s hard for me to take anything seriously as this sequence begins. What other turns are coming, why does anyone trust or believe in anything any more? Additionally, the initial Pearl vs Dutchman sequence doesn’t make a lot of logical sense as the Dutchman and Davy and his crew are kinda invincible and have shown they can even dive under the water when needed. Are we to believe that a few canon broadsides could bring them down? How long are they circling this maelstrom? Is that really all Calypso is doing? Jack’s stealing of Davy’s chest is conveniently easy (for a laugh), Swann and Turners marriage during a sword fight is conveniently easy (for a laugh), does this finale actually take stakes seriously? I feel bad for the CGI artists who spent countless hours animating complex CGI maelstrom backgrounds and complex CGI opponents for a sequence that’s not even about the action – but mostly about a few cheap laughs. Forget strategy, or adaptation, or genuine back and forth competitiveness – this action all feels arbitrary and for a laugh…until it isn’t…and then it isn’t. Lord Beckett is smart and quick to respond…until he isn’t and he blunders and can't act. It’s hard for me to understate just how badly this entire 30 minute finale misses the mark to me despite its great ambitions. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sequence with this much talent, effort, time, and ambition go so wrong on story logic, basic design, and execution level. A major nit for an action fan like me is this – they tease an epic fleet showdown with pirates from around the globe and a giant British armada, but the finale ends up really being the Pearl vs the Dutchman and then they turn on the Endeavor. That’s it. It’s a shame really, because there’s still Verbinski’s strong visual presentation here including a great shot of Beckett in slow-motion as his ship is destroyed around him. What a long and exhausting let down of a sequence.

Mediocre sequences that have some flaw or issue I find somewhat insulting or offensive.

23. “Finale: Fountain of Youth Fight” 
-Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) 
- Commentary: Devoid of any new inspiration, this convoluted and boring finale set piece can’t even get up the energy to at least match the visual presentation of the previous POTC finales it slavishly imitates. It's just a bunch of people clanking swords until someone else shows up and they clank swors again until someone else shows up. By film four, a final round of double crosses and weaseling by Jack Sparrow over another "spiritual" McGuffin isn’t interesting anymore – it’s just plain boring.

22. “Palm Tree Escape: Sparrow Hops on Palms” -Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) 
- Commentary: This sequence, perhaps on paper sounded like good fun, comes close to mocking the audience with Jack’s ridiculous escape method of catapulting from palm tree to palm tree and then somehow tying up the dumbest soldiers in history by running a rope around all of them. Still, if something fails in this franchise, I'd rather it be short and trying to be entertaining rather than convoluted and exhausting (see previous two entries).

Mediocre sequences that lack anything that makes them stand out. Decent, but forgettable.

21. “Turner Helps Sparrow Escape the Hangman” -Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
- Commentary: A short little sequence at the end of the first film sees Will Turner help Jack Sparrow escape the noose of the hangman. It's not a full-on action sequence, one of those fun little adventurous moments the franchise peppers throughout. Short, but enjoyable here. The logic of characters not caring much of Jack's escape, not so great.

20. “Pearl & Sao Feng Rebel & Escape Beckett's HMS Endeavor” -Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
- Commentary: Coming after a lengthy bit of exposition and double-turns, this quick and somewhat sequence, like the Singapore sequence earlier in the film, feels rushed and improvised on the spot. Perhaps another way to put it is this - the Pirates "double cross and improvise" template is wearing thin. It doesn’t make a ton of sense and unfortunately makes Becket less of a threat as he’s bested by people who are essentially prisoners. Still, there's one or two nice little stunts here as people move from ship to ship.

19. “Sparrow Leads a Failed Mutiny on Blackbeard's Ship” -Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) 
- Commentary: The Pirates franchise has a problem with conjuring up cursed ship captains - after Barbossa and Davy Jones, this is the third major cursed captain as a villain. It's so redundant by now. Anyways, in this mediocre sequence, Jack convinces his crew to mutiny and take over the ship from Angelica. This is really just an introduction action sequence that allows us to see that there are some immortal type henchmen on board and when Blackbeard does show up, allows us to see that he has special powers - like controlling ropes (huh?) that he uses to hang up the mutineers. It's an okay sequence that looks good, but feels a bit arbitrary just to introduce another baddie that's a variation of one we've already gotten. I wonder if the next film will introduce another villain captain?

Largely mediocre sequences that have some redeeming or standout feature. This, to me, is where the average decent action sequence ranks.

18. “Salazar and his Sharks Chase Jack in the Water” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
- Commentary: This is a pretty cool sequence for the most part. Jack has been kicked off his ship and he's just in a row boat heading toward a random island (its amazing how often this kind of stuff happens randomly in this series). This is when Salazar finally catches up with him. He releases a few undead sharks and the gang (who can walk on water by the way) get on the water and run towards him. It looks great until Jack harnesses one of the sharks and gets it to give the boat some speed. The reliance on CGI and wonky physics really hurts the ending here as the boat ends up on shore through some of the worst suspension of gravity/physics I've ever seen. Wouldn’t you know it, Salazar can’t step foot on land - why you may want o know - they never say how these curses really work. If Salazar and his crew could run on water, why did they need to release the sharks? These films just get dumber with each entry.

17. “Jack Sparrow Fights His Doppelganger & Escapes Together” -Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) 
- Commentary: A very creative idea with decent execution (something plaguing the few entries into the series). The way the fight is executed feels more like a tour of the room, imitating other similar “environment” fights, than it does feel like anything fresh, exciting, or interesting. For instance, the fight on the walkways above the room, but there's really no discernible reason why the doppelganger (Angelica) chooses to go up there other than the choreography had her do so. Additionally, once up there, they just kind of walk through the area rather than make genuine use of that unique space. They just end up back on the floor. In other words, a lot of sound and fury here without much substance besides some decent sword back and forth and a somewhat interesting entrance for Penelope Cruz's Angelica. I wish the secret was played down and the creative tension between them was amped up in their sword exchange.

16. “Finale: Fight for the Trident and Escaping the Trench” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
- Commentary: Visually, there is a lot to commend here. They pull off this trench idea really well. As an action sequence and culmination of character arcs – the whole thing is aggressively predictable and mediocre. Having Salazar possess young Turner is...understandable given the corner they wrote themselves into, but also dumb because they just keep throwing new arbitrary powers for Salazar to have. 

15. “Kraken is Unleashed Upon Turner's Escape Ship” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2005)
- Commentary: After escaping from Davy Jone's ship with the key to his heart chest, Jones sends out the Kraken to take down the ship Turner took escape on. It's the first time we get a good look at the Kraken and its still quite impressive even nearly twenty years later. This is more of a disaster sequence than an action one (there's no back and forth combat here), so it's all about spectacle here. Short, but good.

14. “Tricking Norrington: Stealing the Dauntless to Steal the Interceptor” -Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Commentary: These kind of adventurous sequences are the action glue that holds the Pirates template together between large set pieces. They are no longer than a couple of minute, but they require some action, adventure, and trickery on behalf of our heroes. In this one, Jack and Will walk underwater using an upturned boat for air, board the Dauntless ship, take it over, and attempt to sail it out. Then when they are boarded by an overzealous Norrington they simply switch boats and sail out on the Interceptor. It's a clever and fun little sequence even if there's no traditional combat or destruction here.

13. “Singapore Spa Showdown” -Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
- Commentary: This is a genuine disappointment. The Singapore bath house set is incredible, there are new characters to the story and we are waiting to be wowed at the beginning of this film. Instead, the sequence feels rushed, a bit messy, and features none of the next level visual presentation that the stand-out set pieces of the first two films had. It's filmed largely in shadow and the addition of the British navy being a surprise third party does seem to have muddied everything up quite a bit. There's a nice large fireworks explosion near the end, but this just feels like a real missed opportunity. 

12. “Barbossa's Pirates Arrive in Port Royal & Take Elizabeth” -Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Commentary: After Elizabeth Swann falls into the ocean wearing the golden pirate medallion, Barbossa and his pirates arrive at night on the shores of Port Royal. They bombard the port with shot and then take the boats ashore. Once onshore they cause havoc among the local people. The fort fires shot back. A few of the pirates make their way to the governor's mansion where there's some back and forth between them and Elizabeth Swann, but they ultimately capture her and take her back to the ship - their prize having been won. It's a decent action sequence with one or two nice wide shots of the bombardment. Feels like a bit more could have been done here, but it's really a transitional action sequence.

Good sequences that have some issue holding it back from being solid.

11. “The Crew Rescues Sparrow from Execution” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
- Commentary: Again, Sparrow is in need of saving along with another "witch" prisoner. Other than a bit of really fun visual cleverness with a guillotine, this is a pretty standard "last second execution rescue" scene. There's a long back and forth between the young Turner and the "Witch" after he catches her where she complains about how much he has his hands all over. They go at it for some time. Decent stuff.

10. “Mermaids Attack!” -Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) 
- Commentary: This isn't a great sequence, but it did surprise me by how effective it was able to be without being a good sequence...does that make sense? The scene plays out like a horror film as the mermaids who have an attractive appearance are actually blood thirsty beasts dragging men down to their deaths. There turns out to be hundreds of mermaids and the men have to try and capture one (it's necessary for the fountain of youth to work) and so while they want to run, they also need to try and catch one. The visuals here are pretty nice, but the mermaids and the night setting give the entire thing a CGI/set kind of feel. There's some cool looking action beats but the ending with Jack taking down a light tower to scare off the mermaids is a bit lame. 

9. “Black Pearl vs. The Intercept: Barbossa Catches Turner” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2005)
- Commentary: On a technical level, this sequence is pretty good. We get a well shot sequence of two major sailing ships intersect, fire a volley close in, and even a fight while they board. The problem with this sequence is its role in the story and the logic of the fight. First, in the story, it’s essentially unnecessary as this sequence could have happened back at the Isla da Muerta, but seems padded and convoluted since they decided to tell the battle at see in this way. Additionally, the logic of the battle – there’s not much tension fighting immortal beings and their idea to practically destroy the ship without thinking about what they might do to the medallion. The person with the medallion has leverage, but they are too dumb to use it. Even now, as I proofread this, I'm struggling to distinguish this sequence from several other similar ones in the franchise.

8. “Pearl vs. Salazar: Canon Hopping at Night” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
- Commentary: This is a largely decent battle sequence between Sparrow and Salazar that's made miles better by the clever idea of having Sparrow and Salazar using the exposed canons on the sides of their two ships (facing each other) to battle it out. Throw in the mast coming to life and battling with Sparrow as well and you have one of the more interesting fights in the series. It’s a clever idea – but given we know Salazar is quick and can run on the water, it again doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, like nearly every entry into the franchise, we don’t really know how the bad guy can be killed in combat outside of their arbitrary kryptonite like (can’t step on land, stab his heart, etc.) weakness that's not always explained clearly. It’s redundant and repetitive and a bit of visual cleverness can’t overcome that the sequence takes place at night, with CGI backgrounds abounding, making it a bit unclear to follow.

Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.

7. “Bank Vault Robbery in Saint Martin” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
- Commentary: This sequence just missed out on being one of the greats of the franchise. I love the setting, the scale, the basic idea, and most of the execution. A brand new bank vault being shown off to an upscale crowd only to have Sparrow already drunk/asleep in the vault and then his crew tries to drag it away (think Fast Five style but with horses not cars) and unfortunately drags the entire building.  I love the commitment here to keeping the scale of a building being dragged through a city. There's some really nice wide shots here. It's a great setup and idea that about halfway through the sequence loses it’s way and is intercut with a “she’s a witch” plotline that nearly sinks the entire thing. A few adjustments and this could have been so much more. The directors should have watched Bond's tank sequence in Goldeneye for reference.

6. “Finale: Dutchman & the Kraken Take Out the Pearl” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2005)
- Commentary: I really like the sense of strategy they gave Will Turner in directing this fight against the Kraken. This is about as good a fight against a giant sea creature with huge tentacles as it gets me thinks. Will makes sure the crew waits till the last second to use the guns, then lays a trap with gunpowder and rum. Of course, the Kraken acts slower and more methodical here than in previous outings, but the visual presentation is on another level. Although the Kraken is clearly CGI (very good CGI), we get treated to a moving camera around what looks like very practical sets of the entire ship, helping to ground the sequence and give it some dynamism without the whole thing looking like it was all made in a computer. Overall, the sequence plays out in three distinct phases with stakes and character altering decisions for our main players. Hard to fault a scene like that.

5. “Finale: Pirates, British, and Sparrow Fight the Cursed” -Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
- Commentary: On paper, what a cool, creative, and adventurous sequence. A group of cursed pirates trying to end it take on the British navy and our crafty heroes. This interesting and technically impressive finale sequence is almost completely undercut for me by the inability of the cursed pirates to die. It renders all their meticulously choreographed and visual effect produced gun and sword fights moot until they become mortal again. Sparrow and Barbossa fight for a while and then acknowledge their immortality and wonder if they’ll keep going forever. It’s cheeky, but it’s a genuine feeling of the audience too – none of the fights can be meaningful in the world of the story as long as the characters are invincible. When a sequence is as long as this one, it begins to feel really redundant. If you can get past that, and I barely do, then you can enjoy a lot of the neat visuals here - especially the swashbuckling and the treasure cave setting. It all comes together nicely in the end as well, with a sweet goodbye moment from Barbossa. 

4. “London Tour: Escaping British Custody” -Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) 
- Commentary: In my mind, this right here is the threshold spot for this franchise when it comes to action. After this sequence, we get to the definitive POTC action (only three scenes IMO). This action sequence is a really good one, but it's just missing something extra to really make it stand out from a chase scene you'd find in any other high production values movie. I enjoy this sequence more for the convincing 18th century London backdrops (the backgrounds are cobbled together from many different London locations) than the rather tame chase sequence that plays. I like Sparrow hiding behind things, swinging across chandeliers and tiptoeing across carriages. The action isn't bad, it’s shot with clarity, but it’s also doesn’t really exhibit much skill, awe, wonder, violence, or anything else to make it stand out in a sea of films with great sequences. It’s kind of an extended hide and seek with some mild parkour thrown in - with a really awesome historical background. That's good, just not good enough to enter definitive grounds.

Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. These sequences are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.

3. “Escape from Cannibal Island” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2005)
- Commentary: Trying to stay on land, Sparrow finds himself in the middle of a cliché cannibalistic tribe who makes him their leader. The catch is that they are going to eat their leader. This is a tough one to rate as it’s certainly an action sequence, but it’s a unique comedic/slapstick escape sequence that mostly works. I say mostly because viewer mileage might vary as the sequence takes a pretty big step up in suspension of disbelief (hanging over a bottomless abyss in human bone cages and Sparrow surviving a fall from hundreds of feet up are two examples) and relies heavily on the viewer enjoying the humor. Myself – at times I love it and feel it should be rated much higher and at others I feel like its an overrated joke. I enjoy it much more than I don't however. Probably the best Chaplin/Keaton-esque sequence in the entire franchise. The use of CGI to enhance the location shooting rather than replace - allows the sequence some grounding and a beautiful and memorable palette of colors.

2. “Sword Fight: Turner vs. Sparrow” -Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
- Commentary: After a quick escape from custody, Jack Sparrow finds himself on the run and takes refuge in a blacksmith shop where he can take off his cuffs. It isn't long until he encounters Will Turner and we get a fun introductory sequence that demonstrates the sword prowess and basic traits of each character. In the first phase of the sword fight we learn that both Turner and Sparrow are good swordsmen, but that Turner has a passion and determination Sparrow doesn't quite equal. After feeling each other out, the second phase of the fight picks up the intensity and we get several little nuggets that show us Sparrow is willing to be more practical and underhanded than Turner. The sword back and forth is shot well, with several bits of humor (like the seesaw gags), this is an excellent action sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film and indeed the franchise itself.

Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.

1. “Island Mayhem: Fighting for the Chest and the Key” -Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2005)
- Commentary: One of the absolute best "adventure" action sequences ever made. In fact, I think this action sequence exists an entire tier up from anything else found in the franchise. This has all the fun, adventure, slapstick, and beautiful setting of the Cannibal Island sequence without requiring anywhere near the same suspension of disbelief. Our group of heroes arrive at an absolutely gorgeous Caribbean island with a large sandbar with several lagoon like shallow areas. The colors of blue against the white sand are just incredible. After finding the chest of Davey Jones, we get a quick layout of the conflicting ambitions of each of the major players: Norrington, Turner, and Sparrow. Each man has their own reason for wanting the heart and each man is willing to swindle the other for it. Once the sword fighting begins the sequence grows more and more complicated with the addition of the Dutchman crew and Sparrow’s crew that see their own angle. The sword fighting set against the white sand and turquoise water is stunning and Gore Verbinski does a great job using it to highlight the human action. The sword fighting itself is quite good, though there's no particularly iconic moves - it's more about the setting and how the three different men make use of it. They eventually fight their way from the lagoon inland to a bell tower and water wheel.
Additionally, this is probably the greatest “adventure” moment for the entire franchise when it comes to the full score. What was nice in the first film finds its full bombastic and definitive nature here during this sequence. The biggest feature is the camera work – the visual presentation of the warring parties and how cleverly and dynamically their three-way struggle can play out in this beautiful setting behind the score at full blast. The biggest highlight for me is the playful camera work in presenting the three main players fighting inside a detached water wheel. In the end, this sequence is the best execution of what the entire franchise seemed to have been shooting for (to always less success than here): a fun, quirky, and comedic adventure where multiple parties with their own agendas are fighting over treasured objects in a beautiful Caribbean setting. This absolutely sequence nailed it and will be an enjoyable watch for many years to come.