Pirates of the Caribbean was a surprise franchise. The idea of a “movie based on a theme park attraction” sounded like the death of cinema at the time. Yet, Curse of the Black Pearl wowed audiences in 2003, setting Johnny Depp on the path of mega stardom and island ownership. It helps that it still holds up as a highly entertaining and well constructed blockbuster to this day. The subsequent three sequels ranged from ambitious messes (Dead Man’s Chest, At World’s End) to uninspired garbage (On Stranger Tides). Yet, they still made Disney massive amounts of cash, mainly through overseas dollars that depend more on elaborate set pieces rather than dialogue or character. So, a decade and a half after the original entry surprised people, how could Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – the fifth entry in the franchise – sufficiently wow audiences of today? Especially in a world where Depp has lost the consistency of his box office pull?
Well, they definitely decided to air more on the side of elaborate set pieces. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) certainly want to return to the type of elaborate madness in the various action scenes that helped Gore Verbinski put his stamp on blockbusters back in the days of Black Pearl. The creativity of how elaborate some of the earlier ones in particular are is incredibly commendable. The opening bank heist has Buster Keaton levels of insane stunt work and the attempted execution scene has some incredibly inventive camera angles. This initially teases the type of fresh direction that this franchise desperately needs and shows that these two Swedes could be a force to recon with in Hollywood. As things devolve further, we quickly see just how recycled all of this really is from previous Pirates of the Caribbean films. Giant gaping holes in the water for a climax, a witch… for some reason and a cameo from an aging rock star (Paul McCartney this time… for some reason) shows the fumes this ship of a franchise is riding on.
Though a lot of that is on a story level. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales doubles down on Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann type characters, with their son Henry (Brenton Thwaits) and astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) as well as… Will and Elizabeth. Scodelario and Thwaits try to pick up the reigns, with the former being far more consistent than the latter. Scodelario is at least independent in a more underdog fashion than Elizabeth was. Brenton just has the literal same motivation Will had in the second and third installments: trying to get his father back. Speaking of which, Orlando Bloom puts all the effort into his charisma as he had in The Hobbit trilogy. Take of that what you will. Oh, and Keira Knightley clearly only gave the crew an afternoon’s worth of her time. I’d say that’s a spoiler… but what’s to spoil?
None of the character moments really matter in the grand scheme of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. There’s clearly a desire to make it seem like they care, though. Jack Sparrow starts off at rock bottom, with his crew abandoning him and a perception that’s he’s all washed up as a pirate. Except within minutes he’s got his crew back and he’s doing the same shit he always used to do. The drunken buffoonery, conveniently dodging death at every turn and making off with a bit of treasure. It’s all the same, only Depp has even less interest in coming off like he’s invested in any of this. This honestly wouldn’t be such a bother if they didn’t try to set up something that would be interesting! A way for Johnny Depp to show more dimension to his tired Keith Richards impression. But no. Save any of that for a vanity flashback of Depp de-aged to look like himself circa A Nightmare on Elm Street instead of having progression for this character.
Unfortunately, this also affects the more consistent recurring character in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; Captain Barbossa. Geoffrey Rush has always been a delight in this part, putting so much relish into the traditional pirate accent and mannerisms. Here, they try to progress Barbossa in a more grounded emotional way, which Rush is desperately trying to sell. Unfortunately, there’s so little development to it. Within a 20 minute time span of a major revelation on his part, it gets resolved in a telegraphed hamfisted fashion that doesn’t feel fitting for the character. For all the troubles of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, both at least were consistent at attempting to resolve and develop any number of the characters it was juggling over the course of its trilogy. On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales do neither, relying on some the most labored set up and casted off to the side pay off in the history of the series. Right down to a post-credit scene that shows just how out of ideas this series is were it to continue.
Even at its worst, Pirates of the Caribbean still has some consistent effects work. Here, most of that is on display with our villain Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). While Bardem is forced into a mumbling goo-drooling cretin of a character that’s beneath him, the process used to bring him to life is rather extraordinary. Pirates of the Caribbean shows of its more horror tinges with its villain character, in this case reveling in the blown apart sights of Salazar’s crew. That above mentioned flashback might mainly be there to serve Depp’s vanity, but it also shows that every design for each crew member’s ghostly missing appendages have a connection to their fates. Particularly with Bardem’s wavy underwater hair and cracking facial structure. Even their ship has this expanding ribcage-style attack mode that’s truly unique to this series. It’s a technical marvel that’s just wasted on a rather bland villain role.
Ultimately, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an exercise in the familiar. We’ve seen Jack Sparrow do so many stunts like this before and – despite the initial promise of growth or change or any kind of twist in his narrative – he remains the same scoundrel with a few moments of “heart” we’ve seen before. If done right, this could have truly been a redemption arc not just for Jack, but for Depp’s own cinematic career as of late. Take the scarves and hat routine & give it genuine weight in between the elaborate action sequences. But that fizzles and dies like a flat soda in the hot caribbean sun. That combined with lackluster villains and further lacking character moments doesn’t make this the worst entry. The direction helps keep this from being On Stranger Tides levels of bland awfulness. However, this still feels like the last nail in the coffin for the Pirates of the Caribbean. Move on to some other ride-turned-movie concept, Disney. I’m pulling for an All That Jazz style Enchanted Tiki Room movie. Or at least a non-Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion movie.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Endless Johnny Depp Scarves
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