Director: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, David Wenham and Orlando Bloom
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
Running Time: 2 Hrs, 9 Mins
I loved the original Pirates of the Caribbean and enjoyed the franchise’s next entry, Dead Man’s Chest. But after those two films, the franchise began a noticeable nosedive. I try to go into every movie I see and every review I write with an open mind, but that’s easier said than done sometimes. And as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t work up any appetite for Johnny Depp’s fifth (last?) turn in the pirate mascara and garb.
And while it wasn’t the disaster I feared it could be, everything about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn’t just reveal that this franchise is showing its age, but that it has lost touch with most of what made it enjoyable to start with.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has fallen on hard times (doesn’t every one of these movies open with him down on his luck somehow?). With his precious Black Pearl magically confined to a bottle, Jack and his ragtag crew are trying to carve out a living on the dry land of St. Martin, where British troops hold sway beneath Captain Scarfield (David Wenham). So naturally, it’s in a St. Martin jail where Jack meets Michael Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario).
Not only is the young Turner desperately searching for a way to release his father Will (Orlando Bloom) from the unholy curse that binds him to the Flying Dutchman, but he also carries word from the undead Captain Salazar, who is seeks vengeance on Jack (isn’t everybody by this point?). When Salazar is released from his prison and spreads death across the high seas, Jack and Michael ally with Karina, whose studies in astronomy have earned the label of a witch. The diary Karina’s father left her holds the key to finding the Trident of Poseidon, the most powerful artifact in the seas and the only thing that can save Jack from Salazar.
What’s frustrating about Dead Men is that it tries really hard to live up to the franchise’s early standards, but it just can’t. Part of the failure seems t be built into the movie’s DNA. One of the things I loved about the early films was that they weren’t merely smorgasbords of CGI and visual effects, there were actual plots hidden beneath everything else. The stories were never MENSA material, but there twists and turns, schemes within schemes, backstabbing and shifting alliances between multiple parties. It was as fun to follow as to watch. That’s all gone in favour of a cookie cutter plot.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Captain Jack himself. In the early films Jack wasn’t just a run of the mill swashbuckler with a taste for rum and eccentric behaviour. He was clever, with a mind as sharp as his sword. He was two steps ahead of every one else and could adapt on the fly. It was the only way he could escape the messes the devils on his shoulder kept getting him into and win the day. Now he’s just a bumbling fool who avoids certain death with little more than luck.
Dead Men tries to infuse new blood into the franchise by replacing Sparrow’s original sidekicks Bloom and Kiera Knightley with Thwaites and Scodelario, but the new pair just doesn’t have the same presence. Hollywood seems determined to make a leading man out of Thwaites, who’s better here than he was in the Gods of Egypt fiasco but he still lacks any sort of screen weight or gravity. Scodelario does a decent job as the feisty Smyth, but her character pales compared to Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann. And it almost feels like Javier Bartem, who proved he could play a nightmare come to life in No Country For Old Men, is wasted here. Salazar isn’t the worst villain in the world, but he’s no Darth Vader either.
Dead Men definitely has its moments. There some nice action beats, a few amusing one-liners a handful of jaw-dropping visuals shots. Yet it’s as though it remembers what made the franchise fun and successful all those years ago but can’t recreate that formula. Dead Men isn’t the worst entry in this franchise, but it’s nowhere near the best either. It’s guilty of one of Hollywood’s greatest sins; mediocrity.
While this is most likely the last Pirates movie, the end credit scene teases a possible sixth, which would be a really bad idea. Its obvious the franchise is growing stale, and perhaps after 14 years that is inevitable. Curse of the Black Pearl, the film that started this gravy train in 2003, was far better than any movie inspired by an amusement park ride had any right to be. Dead Men Tell No Tales on the other hand, feels like the movie you would expect to be based on an overgrown water slide.
As tough as it may be to admit, it’s time for Captain Sparrow to hang up the sword and retire. It’s best to remember him as the guy we met nearly a decade and a half ago.