Depending how closely you follow film/TV news, you may or may not be aware of how close we recently came to another writer’s strike. The last such strike occurred roughly a decade ago and left a trail of undercooked television episodes and misshapen films in its wake (looking at you, Quantum of Solace). Theoretically, the fact that another strike was averted at the last minute should be great news then. But take a look at films like Baywatch and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about the state of screenwriting in Hollywood.
In theory, there’s no reason for either of these films to be terrible. Baywatch, in particular, strikes me as a brilliant idea – take attractive actors known for action and/or comedy (Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, The Motherfucking Rock) and shove them into a half-remembered property known for action but best remembered for attractive people and cheesy comedy. It sells itself – I was honestly excited to see it, walking into the cinema.
Admittedly, it’s not a huge surprise that the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film isn’t a jewel. Helmed by an actor whose character’s ‘amusingly despicable drunk’ persona has bleed into his real life (minus the amusingly) and weighed down by a decade-plus of detritus, we could have at least hoped for something formulaic and intermittently entertaining. But the resultant script is utterly incoherent, with more holes than Salazar’s (Javier Bardem’s) undead army of desiccated mariners.
It’s not that either film is entirely absent charm. For a long time, Baywatch coasts by on the strength of its charismatic cast; Johnson and Efron are always fun to watch, and get ample opportunities to show off their impressive physiques. Daddario is pretty well a bust (pun intended), but she’s outshone by Sports-Illustrated-model-turned-actress Kelly Rohrbach (as C.J. Parker, the role made famous by Pamela Anderson) who’s far more than just a pretty face (and body). Meanwhile Dead Men Tell No Tales earns sufficient goodwill from its showcase of spectacular stunts, Australian scenery, Australian character actors and, of course, vintage overacting from Bardem and Geoffrey Rush.
Either film could have been good – well, passable – with screenplays content to be plain ol’ mediocre. Ah, but neither Damian Shannon and Mark Smith (responsible for Baywatch; began their writing careers with Freddy vs. Jason) nor Jeff Nathanson (responsible for Pirates; began his writing career with Speed 2: Cruise Control) can quite reach the bar of ‘mediocre.’ I have to stress that I’m not picking on these writers without justification, but because it’s unmistakably their contributions that ensure that these films aren’t worth your time or money. Despite serviceable work from their directors and committed performances from their casts, both Baywatch and Pirates are sabotaged by their dire screenplays.
Diagnosing Baywatch’s failings is straightforward: it needs more jokes. There’s some promise in the first act, with self-aware (if easy) jokes about slow-motion running patched together with a lot of crude humour (dicks stuck in deckchairs, tonnes of swearing), but it soon finds itself inexplicably interested in the particulars of its drug smuggling storyline. Guys. Guys. Absolutely nobody going to see a Baywatch film starring The Rock gives two shits about how exactly Priyanka Chopra’s bad guy is smuggling some made-up illicit drug.
Half-assed comedic adaptations of old television shows – I’m thinking Starsky and Hutch or 21 Jump Street, but there are countless examples – work when they’re funny. Screenwriters Shannon and Smith seem to be wed to the improvisational model of modern studio comedies, building the story around a series of potentially funny scenes that are oddly bereft of jokes. Maybe this works in, say, Bad Neighbours when you pair Zac Efron with actually-funny-actor Seth Rogen, but neither Johnson nor Efron are comedians. They can deliver funny jokes if you write them for them in the first place. Instead the film clumsily careens from one not-actually-comedic comedic setpiece to another, interspersed with competently shot action scenes overlaid with an expensive-sounding soundtrack. (Oh, and the laziest obligatory cameos in history.)
So maybe Baywatch would have gotten away with it if they’d cast actors with ad-libbing skills. Pirates has no such excuse.
Like Baywatch, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales does a convincing job of resembling a good film for a while there. We’re introduced to a handful of new characters. We begin with Henry (Brenton Thwaites) as the grown-up son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, on the search for the Trident of Poseidon which will apparently free his dad from an earlier film’s curse. Inevitably there’s Henry’s romantic interest, Carina (Skins’ Kaya Scodelario), a talented astronomer also on the search for the Trident because …something to do with her dad? And then there’s Salazar, a CGI-swathed zombie with a vendetta against Jack Sparrow since apparently people still want to see Johnny Depp in movies.
There’s some ropey plotting to combine all these characters – and, eventually Rush’s Captain Barbossa – together into a plotline directed straight towards the Trident. It works for a while because the movie has pacing and momentum – and a couple clever setpieces, one liberally adapted from Fast Five and another involving imaginative use of a guillotine – but once the movie settles in for the long haul the cracks reveal themselves.
I have no problem with a MacGuffin-centric storyline, but whatever the shiny magic thing your characters are hunting for, they need a convincing character motivation! Pirates’ inconsistent, oft-contradictory script doesn’t seem to understand what’s motivating anybody beyond Henry, and he’s the least interesting character of the bunch. I’m forgiving of plotholes if we’re invested in the characters, but an hour or so in I found myself frequently questioning why anyone was doing what they were doing … and rarely coming up with a convincing answer. (Also, word to the wise: rather than trying to make new characters interesting through their parentage, just write interesting characters).
These films are a mess. They’re so expensive, yet so reliant on the charms of the actors and the efforts of the visual effects teams. Perhaps I’m misguided in placing the blame on the shoulders of the screenwriters: given the number of story and producer credits on these films, it’s not hard to imagine them snowed under with conflicting expectations (and, say, managing Depp’s rumoured bad behaviour on- and off-set). But it just feels so disappointing to watch properties with potential – not to be masterpieces, but to be fun popcorn entertainment – crumble into forgettable piles of nothing. Write better jokes. Write better characters.
Make better films.