‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’ Review: A Once-Great Franchise Sinks to the Bottom
When last we saw Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow he was, I don’t know, doing pirate stuff probably? After the first Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl, all these movies began to blend together. Some sword fights, a mystical MacGuffin, an all-powerful bad guy, a couple battles at sea, blather, mince, repeat. Even though the latest, Dead Men Tell No Tales, comes from a new pair of directors (Kon-Tiki’s Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg), it’s basically indistinguishable from the three previous sequels, except they’re mostly bad and it is extremely bad.
Now in his fifth movie adventure, Jack is back on the hunt for treasure while on the run from his enemies, including the British government, a band of pirates led by his old foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and a supernatural ship full of dead sailors led by the vengeful Captain Salazar. He’s played by Javier Bardem in a performance that is at least 45 percent him hissing the words “Jack” and “Sparrow” repeatedly while black goo drips off his lips. Bardem’s absurdly hammy work here makes his Skyfall villain look like a model of thespianic restraint in comparison.
Franchise stalwarts Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley return for cameos while their roles as Blankly Handsome Swashbuckler and Feisty Proto-feminist are filled by younger, cheapter talent. Brenton Thwaites plays Henry Turner, Bloom’s son; Kaya Scodelario is Carina Smyth, an orphaned astronomer on a quest started by her absent father many years earlier. Everyone wants Poseidon’s legendary trident, although the specific reasons why are murky or, in some cases, downright nonsensical. (Looking at you, Barbossa.)
Frankly, the whole movie is so nonsensical — both narratively and visually — that it almost seems like a misguided aesthetic choice. Bloom is 40, Thwaites is 27, yet they’re cast as father and son. In one random scene, a wedding takes place in the bones of a giant whale for no apparent reason, while Jack fends off the unwanted advances of an homely widow. Paul McCartney shows up for one scene dressed like pirate, I guess because Keith Richards was busy that day. The rules of physics are treated loosely, if observed at all; four horses somehow pull an entire house off its foundation and drag it for miles through the streets of a port town.
This is a movie with zombie pirates, so perhaps some slack should be given in the scientific department. And the plot in a Pirates of the Caribbean is more excuse than selling point; it’s only there to motivate Depp’s inebriated antics and the action set-pieces. Still, it would be easier to forgive this Pirates’ general incoherence if it didn’t spend so much time trying (and mostly failing) to explain these characters’ complicated backstories in boring dialogue scenes. There’s a whole flashback that reveals why Salazar hates Jack Sparrow, that glosses over the part where he turns into a strange undead creature after being exploded and drowned in the span of a minute. (It seems like that’s kind of an important detail?) The same sequence does reveal, with great fanfare, how Jack Sparrow got his hat. In case that’s something you’ve always wanted to know. (SPOILER ALERT: Someone gave it to him.)
In The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Jack was basically a supporting character. To accommodate Depp’s growing popularity, the Pirates films developed a comedic formula that’s a bit like the Marx brothers in reverse: One Groucho surrounded by half a dozen Margaret Dumonts, each stuffier and more unappealing than the last. The charmless supporting cast does make Depp look funnier in comparison, and he desperately needs the help this time; the script by Jeff Nathanson and longtime series writer Terry Rossio gives him almost nothing to work with. There are more unintentional laughs than genuinely amusing lines. (Looking at you, Barbossa.)
Dead Men Tell No Tales is the sort of sequel that’s so bad it makes you retroactively wonder why you liked the original film so much in the first place. The Curse of the Black Pearl was cheeky and fun with impressive action, cool special effects, and a charismatic star performance. This Pirates is leaden and predictable, with barely a handful of memorable shots and stunts (there is one clever sequence involving Depp and a guillotine). After 15 years, Captain Jack has devolved into an accumulation of tics and pratfalls, and his movies are basically lavish high-seas versions of a Scooby-Doo episode: A guh-guh-guh-ghost does a bunch of spooky stuff and everyone runs and screams for a while, and then the bad guy gets caught. He would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those blasted meddling kids and their damn pirate.