The fifth film in the popular Pirates franchise is a lifeless and unmotivated spectacle, tired and stale as bread at sea.
The first Pirates of the Caribbean holds a special place in my heart. Released in 2003, the film is a fantastic action/adventure in the vein ’30s Errol Flynn sea adventures. So I got to indulge my increasing adoration for classic film and the pure joy of great summer cinema in one go. And since I was 15 when the first film came out it helped that Orlando Bloom was easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, since 2003, the franchise has defined the term “diminishing returns,” none more so than this fifth installment. As lumbering as its title, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will leave you running for the plank, or the exit.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) must help find the Trident of Poseidon to stop the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Joining him on the adventure is Will Turner’s (Orlando Bloom) son Henry (Brenton Thwaites), who believes the trident can lift Will’s curse.
Where to start with a movie that gets everything wrong? The original Pirates and its first two sequels overflowed with narrative and action in service to each other. With Dead Men Tell No Tales you can almost see the screenwriters moving pages around. Skipping 2011’s On Stranger Tides, the film continues where 2007’s At World’s End left off, with Will cursed and serving his sentence on the Flying Dutchman. Young Henry wants to save him but needs the Trident of Poseidon, and Jack Sparrow by extension, to do that.
Nine years pass and from there it’s unclear how old characters are supposed to be. Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario, who play this iteration of Will and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), could be 16-25 for all we know, while Jack and crew look worse for wear but far from hanging up their pirate togs. This starts becoming a problem once Captain Salazar’s backstory is revealed, complete with another example of “Disney spent a lot of money on this technology” by giving us a young Johnny Depp. So, if Jack was a youth when he met Salazar, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) was Jack’s first mate….how old was everyone? Because Barbossa looks 25 years older than Depp does. Couple in the ridiculously stupid twist at the end that undoes the mythos from the first film and makes one nauseated and the timeline will make you go cross-eyed. Outside of that the film takes far too long to actually begin! By the 30-minute mark you’ll start to wonder whether this is Our Town and they’re working off one set.
Say what you will about the previous films’ loud and garish action set-pieces, but they never stood in for actual story. Because the story is both half-baked and confusing the script trades on action spectacle as a form of movement. The plot might not move, but boy does everything else! And when I say everything moves, I mean everything. People move, ships move, even buildings move! Like a parent waving a shiny ball in front of a baby’s face the movie hopes you’ll be so dazzled by the movement you’ll forget Jack and crew haven’t even left the island they’re on. Once the group gets onto the ships, the sense of movement is understandably lessened which only makes things boring. By the midway point the audience will be desperate to watch the camera on the ship moving just because it’s something to watch. And remember when these movies had sword fights? Yep, I miss those days too.
So if things are moving so much the actors must have to work extra hard to retain your attention, right? Nope. Being an MVP in this movie requires a general interest in the material and the ability to speak eloquently. Geoffrey Rush sails through as Barbossa. By this point he has the character nailed down and though his plot unfolds the same as Michael Rooker’s Yondu in Guardians 2, albeit not exactly the same, it’s the best of the lot. Javier Bardem does fine with few words; he and one other person, a cameo, apparently were paid by the word so Bardem says “Sparrow” the entire time. Orlando Bloom was great to see again. Scodelario could have been great as the enlightened female character Karina, but her plotline is ripped directly from Rogue One and the script gets an inordinate amount of humor from making jokes at her expense. Thwaites’ character is about on par with Sam Claflin from On Stranger Tides. He’s a pretty boy who generally “acts” by refusing to keep his mouth closed.
The worst offender is the one keeping this franchise afloat for so long: Johnny Depp. Depp’s drunken acting style was once spontaneous and unique. Now we’re just watching a fumbling inebriated person and I could see that on a Saturday night downtown. Depp lacks anything passing for charisma or charm, drunkenly slurring his words and generally being incomprehensible. This could explain why it often feels like so much of his dialogue is screaming. With so much swirling around him it often feels like he’s found sitting in the corner. When Jack Sparrow blends into the background, the franchise is done.
What was one fun and a solid throwback to a film genre gone by is now just as dead and rotting as its villain. Dead Men Tell No Tales is a plodding mess that fails to entertain. Instead of end credits the movie should have showed each cast member walking by with their hand out to collect their paycheck.