Review: ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean – Dead Men Tell No Tales’

Just when you thought Disney’s stalwart theme-park-to-film franchise had walked the plank for good six years ago with the fourth entry On Stranger Tides here it has arisen from Davy Jones’ Locker for yet another seafaring adventure with Johnny Depp and a bottle of rum.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is, at the very least, better than the last few installments. That’s a backhanded complement, because this fourteen-year-old franchise is standing at starboard when audiences nowadays are all about Star-Lord. And trash pandas. But as the laws of the box office dictate, if people continue to pay to see the same plots and tropes, then studios will keep churning them out until the grosses go down. One would think apathy would have set in by now and audiences would be all Pirates out, but the foreign market loves Johnny Depp as the tipsy, blithering captain.

Unlike the Fast and Furious franchise, now at eight movies in sixteen years, and which hit its apex with No. 5, Fast Five, Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew may only have one or two adventures left in them before the anchor is dropped for good. Regardless of box office success.

Strange as it may sound, it is Captain Jack that is steering the franchise into oblivion. When he made his arrival in 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp made swashbuckling cool again. As the series progressed however, Sparrow has become less appealing and is now best suited to the role of comic relief, good for one-liners here and there. Which wouldn’t be a problem if another actor had a commanding enough presence to take the wheel in his stead.

Dead Men Tell No Tales does offer a flicker of that old Jack Sparrow we fell in love with more than a decade ago, but his best moment is a flashback sequence where we see a digitally de-aged Depp as he becomes captain for the first time. It’s a little scary but nowhere near seeing Michael Douglas de-aged in Marvel’s Ant-Man.

While I may have long forgotten the general plot of the last installment, I most undoubtedly recall the non-appearances of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), both of whom tried to tone down Depp’s buffoonery in the first three adventures. Bloom, who will always be linked to this franchise and The Lord of the Rings, has the misfortune of not being a big enough draw and yet his presence was sorely missed in Tides. The same for Knightley, who has fared better than Bloom post-Pirates with John Carney’s Begin Again and the Oscar-winning The Imitation Game. Turner and Swan’s relationship is the heart of the franchise and with them absent the Pirates of the Caribbean series was bound to shipwreck.

Writer Jeff Nathanson does his best to right a number of wrongs by having the series introduce two characters that’ll likely take charge in forthcoming sequels. They are Henry (Brenton Thwaites), Will and Elizabeth’s son, and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer and horologist, and Henry’s bound-to-be love interest. Henry is on a quest to find the Trident of Poseidon to reunite the family. The trident has the power to remove all curses when destroyed but Henry needs a boat, and a boat needs a captain. Hello, Jack. Carina joins in the search as the navigator, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) with his cheshire grin finds himself tangled in the pursuit. British redcoats are in pursuance as is the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who looks to kill the pirate that condemned him and his crew to the Devil’s Triangle, a stony, waterlogged graveyard of broken bows and upturned ships. Three guesses as to who that pirate was.

Now I don’t like to play the real versus fiction card when trying to apply logic to a film property that involves ghost pirates and Geoffrey Rush looking like a one-legged Cowardly Lion, but the macguffin is the Trident of Poseidon and the mission to destroy it, right? Forget the pursuit and just let Jack Sparrow and crew find it and break it and restore the balance. Henry will get to see his dad again and Captain Salazar’s curse will be lifted. He can pursue Sparrow another day. But noooo, that would be too simple, and a story needs conflict (unless you’re Magic Mike XXL).

Still, my compliments to Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Ronning and Espen Sanberg (who helmed the Oscar-nominated Kon-tiki) who make their American debut and deliver the third-best Pirates adventure. It’s also the shortest yet, another plus. We get plenty of action, though I’d argue a bumbled theft of a bank safe weighing a ton, which serves as Jack Sparrow’s arrival, could have been dropped. Their eye for spectacle may be laden with computer effects (Salazar’s ghost ship gobbling up pirate vessels as if they were cherries in a game of Pac-Man is fun), but not to the degree that derided those where Gore Verbinski and Rob Marshall shouted orders from the captain’s chair.

2003’s Curse of the Black Pearl had a certain wow factor and Johnny Depp’s turn as the captain netted him a Best Actor nomination. Not as remarkable as Sigourney Weaver’s Academy Award acknowledgment for Aliens nearly twenty years earlier (1986) – a true game-changing performance – but a nice feather in the cap for the performer. Woefully, Dead Men Tell No Tales delivers on its promise yet feels stale, dated. Even live men may not want to tell the tale about this movie. Sooner rather than later it will end up in Davy Jones’ Locker. Kerplunk.

Director: Joachim Ronning and Espen Sanberg
Writer: Jeff Nathanson, based on characters created by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, David Wenham, Stephen Graham
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content)
Running Time:
129 minutes

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