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

Monday, July 27, 2020

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

*scroll down to skip the introduction and get to the rankings
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:

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

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 swordfighting 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.

(20-16)
20. “Finale: Showdown with Beckett's Fleet” -At World’s End 
- The maelstrom setting (initiated by Calypso) is certainly an attempt to up the epic setting, but it unfortunately makes the entire sequence 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 logic 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 is about a cheesy laugh. 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 a logical, design, and execution level. An 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. 


19. “Palm Tree Escape: Sparrow Hops on Palms” -On Stranger Tides
- The finale of At World’s End may be more ambitious and creative, but at least this sequence is mercifully over in just 3 minutes. This sequence, perhaps on paper sounded 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.

18. “Pearl & Sao Feng Rebel & Escape Beckett's HMS Endeavor” -At World’s End
- Coming after a lengthy bit of exposition and double-turns, this quick and messy sequence, like the Singapore sequence earlier in the film, feels rushed and made up on the spot. 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.

17. “Finale: Fountain of Youth Fight” -On Stranger Tides
- Devoid of new inspiration, this 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. 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.

16. “Salazar and his Sharks Chase Jack in the Water” -Dead Men Tell No Tales
- A sequence wholly ruined by near complete use of CGI and wonky physics. Salazar releases monster sharks that act incredibly dumb and give our heroes a chance to escape to land…and wouldn’t you know it, Salazar can’t step foot on land! If Salazar and his crew could run on water, why did they need to release the sharks?

(15-11)
15. “Barbossa's Pirates Arrive in Port Royal & Take Elizabeth” -The Curse of the Black Pearl 
- It's okay.

14. “Kraken is Unleashed Upon Turner's Escape Ship” -Dead Man’s Chest
- More of a disaster sequence than an action one - still, it's an okay spectacle. Short, but decent. 

13. “Jack Sparrow Fights His Doppelganger” -On Stranger Tides
- Creative idea with decent execution. The fight feels more like an un-creative tour of the room, imitating other similar “environment” fights, than it does feel like anything fresh, exciting, or interesting.

12. “Singapore Spa Showdown” -At World’s End
- 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 of a mess, and features none of the next level visual presentation that the stand-out set pieces of the first two films had. 

11. “Black Pearl vs. The Intercept: Barbossa Catches Turner” -The Curse of the Black Pearl
- 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 told this way. It can feel arbitrary the way it plays out, two steps forward two steps back, and is something that plagues the series throughout. 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.

10. “Finale: Fight for Trident and Escaping the Trench” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- Visually, there is a lot to commend here. As an action sequence and culmination of character moments – aggressively predictable and mediocre. (This could be the theme for most of the sequences in the franchise)

9. “The Crew Rescues Sparrow from Execution” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- Other than a bit of visual cleverness with a guillotine, this is a pretty standard "last second execution rescue" scene. Nothing that great, nothing that bad.

8. “Pearl vs. Salazar: Canon Hopping at Night” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- This is a mediocre sequence made 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. It’s a clever idea – but given we know Salazar is quick and can run on the water, it 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.

7. “London Tour: Escaping British Custody” -On Stranger Tides 
- I enjoy this sequence more for the convincing 18th century London backdrops that the rather standard chase sequence plays out on rather than its specific action. The action isn't bad, it’s shot with some 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.

6. “Finale: Pirates, British, and Sparrow Fight the Cursed” -The Curse of the Black Pearl 
-This interesting and technically impressive sequence is almost completely undercut for me by the inability of the cursed pirates to die. It renders all their 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.

5. “Bank Vault Robbery in Saint Martin” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- This sequence just missed out on being one of the greats. I love the setting, the scale, the basic idea, and most of the execution. Unfortunately, the setup is a bit cliché now, and 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.

4. “Finale: Dutchman & the Kraken Take Out the Pearl” -Dead Man’s Chest 
- I really like the sense of strategy they gave Will Turner in directing this fight against the Kraken. 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 (though 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.

3. “Escape from Cannibal Island” -Dead Man’s Chest 
- 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 a 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. Probably the best Keaton-esque sequence in the 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” -The Curse of the Black Pearl 
- This is a fun  sequence that introduces that Sparrow has some sword prowess but isn’t quite in the league with the best and requires luck and scheming to get of jams more than pure skill. It’s shot well, with a bit of humor, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

1. “Island Mayhem: Fighting for the Chest and the Key” -Dead Man’s Chest 
- I think this action sequence exists an entire tier up from the rest. 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. The sword fighting begins and the sequence grows more and more complicated with the addition of the Dutchman crew and Sparrow’s crew that see their own angle. The beach setting here with the white sand, turquoise water, and rustic water wheel is incredible and Gore Verbinski does a great job using it to highlight the human action. 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. Sure, most of the sword action here is pretty standard, but that's not really the point. 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 sequence nailed it.

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