Remember back in 2003 when the first Pirates Of The Caribbean film came out and everyone was so enraptured with Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow that he got an Academy Award nomination? Good times, right? Well, a lot can happen in fourteen years. Case in point, Depp’s fifth trip to the Captain Jack well, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, is just a pale shadow of his previous performances. This Captain Jack is shallow, humorless and remarkably languid. That lack of energy affects the whole movie, leaving an unengaging mess on the screen.
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales kicks off by picking up a story thread from the third movie in the series, At World’s End. (Apparently even the franchise has forgotten that there was a fourth film in 2011.) Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the grown son of original Pirates trilogy character Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), is looking for the legendary Trident of Poseidon, an artifact which can reverse the curse that left his father stranded as part of the spectral crew of the Flying Dutchman at the end of the franchise’s third installment. After a ship he is on is sunk by the crew of a ghost ship led by the spectral Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), Henry finds himself on the island of St, Martin, where the only past time seems to be public executions for the most minor of offenses. Henry teams up with “woman of science” Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) – who for some never well defined reason is called a witch by island officials – and Disney’s favorite alcoholic buccaneer Captain Jack to first escape their incarceration on St. Martin and then to seek out across the seas to find the Trident. Hot in pursuit is Salazar, who wants revenge on Captain Jack for his current spectral condition.
It used to be that Depp could be counted on for picking projects that were somewhat off the beaten path, roles which would give him a chance to experiment as an actor. When a movie like Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape showed up at your local cineplex, you knew that he was going to be delivering a well thought out character to the proceedings. You were in for two hours of bold and interesting choices. But it has been years, maybe a decade or more, since we last saw that Depp on the screen. Instead, we get Depp going through the motions as Captain Jack stumbles, pratfalls and grimaces at the camera. Even Depp looks a bit bored by it all.
While Depp’s Jack is nominally the hero of these movies, his barely by-the-numbers performance leaves the audience looking around for something else to latch onto. One would hope to find interest in the films’ pre-requiste love story featuring Thwaites and Scodelario. However, their roles are just poorly written variations ofBloom and Keira Knightly’s parts in the original Pirates trilogy. Things are not helped by the fact that the two share no chemistry on screen whatsoever. Salazar’s backstory is tissue thin and does nothingto humanize or make him interesting as a villain. The only character to really get any interesting characterization is Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Jack’s former mentor and sometimes nemesis, though the arc his character travels only kicks in during the third act.
The screenplay for this latest installment feels like it is just checking off boxes from a list of elements from previous Pirates Of The Caribbean films. Young couple who will fall in love? Check. Mystical sea-related artifact that needs to be found? Check. British naval officers adding unneeded story complications? Check. Dead Men Tell No Tales even cribs a trope from comic book films by having the hero’s and villain’s origins tied into the same incident. In a flashback, we see a young Jack at the beginning of his career as a pirate start his reputation in a battle that sees Salazar’s ship and crew sent to the bottom of the ocean.
The movie flops around a lot, not knowing what it wants to do. It doesn’t really bring any solid comedic moments. (And I am sure that parents will have hours of fun explaining the “horologist” joke to their tykes they bring to the theater.) As a Disney film, it backs away from many of the more horrific elements its story implies and which the production designers really wanted to play with. Nor does the film deliver any real rousing action sequences. In past installments, much of the action featured Captain Jack blithely stumbling his way through a fight, somehow surviving through drunken luck. But in Dead Men Tell No Tales, the film doesn’t seem to be interested in finding new and fun variations on this. We’re not even going to get into the Paul McCartney cameo, which serves absolutely no story function whatsoever except for the filmmakers to say “Look everyone! It’s a guy from the Beatles!”
At this point it feels likes we’ve seen all of this before, even when directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg do manage to find an interesting visual moment. In fact, the only good action beat arrives right at the end of the film. But that relies more on the characterization work the film did on Barbossa than on anything else for its effectiveness.
As this is pretty much a critic-proof, pre-sold property, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will probably make a boatload (pun only partially intended) of money and Disney will order up a sixth installment at some point in the future. If you find yourself having to go see this film, take a tip from the titular privateers of the franchise and smuggle in some rum. It just might help make things more palatable.