It’s been six years since Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides came out, and to tell the truth, probably the only reason the franchise stayed alive in the public consciousness since then was due to all the troubles surrounding the production of the newest entry in the series, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Hurricanes destroying the sets, the star injuring himself, legal problems for that star and his then-wife…the drama that accompanied the making of this movie might have made for a pretty interesting film in itself.
Surely it would be more intriguing that the one we got. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of those films that no one asked for, save perhaps the folks in the corporate offices of the Walt Disney Company. It’s a handsomely mounted and lavishly produced affair, full of spectacular action, enough CG effects to clog a small city of supercomputers and the usual hyper mix of seafaring adventure, slapstick, supernatural manifestations and romantic escapades. Some members of the audience may find it all entertaining, drawing on distant memories of the first (and still the best) movie in the series, 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, to get them through. But we would be willing to bet that almost none of them will be talking about it the next day.
That’s because this series, while surprisingly transcending its origins as a theme park ride in its first screen incarnation, has long since settled back into being the motion picture equivalent of such. The movie is overly busy and almost desperately frantic (although thankfully not as headache-inducing as, say, the Transformers torture-fests), full of twists and turns that ultimately mean almost nothing and pretty much lead right back to where we started. The long-running joke of the series is that pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), its flamboyantly dissolute anti-hero, never learns and never changes; perhaps after five films a change might do him — and us — some good.
Depp himself never changes either. He could do Sparrow in his sleep now and appears to be doing just that for large stretches of this film. He still gets off some good lines (“Did you bring me a present?” he queries the person who rescues him from a hastily arranged marriage at one point), but anything fresh and unique about Sparrow has long since taken flight. Depp’s core talent and professionalism lets him slide through.
Fortunately the cast around him lifts things up when they can. As far as the newbies go, Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner) shows real spark and spunk as a young astronomer (this being the 17th century, the men all naturally think she’s a witch) while Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) is somewhat more bland but pleasantly earnest as a fellow on a mission with a connection to Jack’s past adventures.
Old hand Geoffrey Rush is still a welcome sight under that long, curly wig as Sparrow’s longtime rival Barbossa, this time given perhaps the most depth the character’s had yet; Rush seems genuinely happy to have something, anything to play. And then there’s Javier Bardem as the main villain, the ghostly, decaying Captain Salazar. With his hunched, crab-like walk, eerily floating hair, black liquid dribbling between his lips and labored breathing (although why would a ghost breathe?), Salazar does cut a menacing yet strangely tragic figure.
The story? What’s the difference? This time out everyone wants something called the Trident of Poseidon, the old sea god’s stick which can supposedly lift all curses. Everybody covets it for a different reason and the quest leads them all over the map, with betrayals, double crosses, chases and explosions happening every few minutes or so. Salazar, Barbossa, and the Royal Navy all want revenge on Jack, while the former and the latter want to rid the sea of all living pirates. There’s supposedly a big emotional revelation toward the end, but because the movie doesn’t spend any time building up to it, it feels more or less like it came out of nowhere — another random element dropped into the script just because. Even that moment, like the movie around it, is hollow.
Norwegian directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning (who got on the radar thanks to their acclaimed seafaring adventure Kon-Tiki) make their Hollywood feature debut here. On a technical and visual level they pull it off nicely, with some striking compositions that On Stranger Tides director Rob Marshall only wishes he had done. They also stage some inventive action sequences, the best of which involves Jack and a rapidly spinning guillotine. If that and Depp’s old Sparrow tricks are enough to keep you entertained for two hours, then Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales may be your cup of grog. But you probably won’t remember a thing about it as soon as it’s finished.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is out in theaters on Friday (May 26).