Film Review: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Dead Men Should Stop Telling Tales

When “Pirates of the Caribbean” hit theaters in 2003, it took audiences by surprise. Not only did it give pop culture a new anti-hero in Captain Jack Sparrow, but it exceeded expectations all around. The success of “Pirates” led to a franchise with sequels that could not live up to the original. Too much of a good thing is too much. But there is a fifth film in the franchise, entitled “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” If this movie is any indication, though, it would appear that dead men do tell tales. For it seems the “Pirates” have become the living dead.

Gone are the moments that made the first film work so well. Jack Sparrow’s drunken swashbuckling was charming in 2003. It is annoying in 2017. His first onscreen appearance in “Dead Men” is so inarticulate they should have added subtitles. As he stumbles through the streets of town in the middle of a bank heist, the action is so thoroughly and obviously choreographed that one could almost see him counting beats until his next step. It is hard to believe Johnny Depp was once nominated for an Oscar for this very character. His work here also lends credibility to the rumors that have followed Depp in recent years about his declining work ethic.

Strangely, though, Johnny Depp isn’t the biggest problem with “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The story itself is full of holes, half-told tales, and more alliance changing than a season of “Survivor.”

The film starts with young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). Will, you might recall, is currently serving an eternal sentence aboard the Flying Dutchman, having become the curse-bearer after defeating Davey Jones in “At World’s End.” His son, Henry dedicates his youth to studying every myth and legend of the seven seas. He is determined to find the Trident of Poseidon, which is said to hold the power to break any curse of the sea.

This mission leads him to join the Royal Navy. His ship, chasing pirates, enters the Devil’s Triangle where they run afoul of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his creepy, undead crew. Captain Salazar kills all of Henry’s shipmates, leaving only the Henry behind. Salazar always leaves one man alive to share the story. After all, dead men tell no tales.

Henry is picked up by another Navy ship and arrested on accusations of treason. He ends up joining forces with a young astronomer named Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario). Because women were uneducated in the 17th century, Carina’s knowledge of science leads everyone to assume she is a witch. Carina and Henry soon discover they have a common goal: to find the Trident of Poseidon. Henry’s desire for the Trident has already been established. Carina’s reason, however, is one that is never fully resolved. Her scientific mindset should not be open to legends and myths. And yet, she seeks the ultimate legendary artifact.

By the most opportune of coincidences, Captain Jack Sparrow also happens to be in the same town and about to be hanged for piracy. The three work together, along with a few leftover members of Jack’s crew who sometimes support him and sometimes do not. Kevin McNally reprises his role as first mate Gibbs and Stephen Graham returns as Scrum. Noticeably absent from the group are Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook, who played Pintel and Ragetti in earlier installments. The crew is basically inconsequential here, as they keep leaving Jack and returning only when doing so can move the plot along. While these characters aren’t intended to be front and center, they aren’t even particularly fun to watch in the periphery.

Also inconsequential is David Wenham as a Royal Navy officer named Scarfield. He is the one who has Henry arrested for treason, and then spends time chasing down Jack et al aboard the Dying Gull. But he shows up so infrequently and randomly that they almost have to remind you why he’s there each time he comes back to the screen.

Henry and Carina feature prominently in the new story. But any attempts to turn them into the new Will and Elizabeth miss the mark. Brenton Thwaites isn’t bad, but he attempts to paint Henry as just a sweet kid who wants his dad to come home. He is far too innocent to be a high seas adventurer, let alone the son of tenacious Elizabeth Swan. Kaya Scodelario’s Carina is a little more believable as a young astronomer. Although her motives are never fully explored beyond the typical daddy issues. Once she is aboard Jack’s Dying Gull and reveals herself to be not only an astronomer but also an horologist, the prostitution jokes abound. It was appropriate to the time period for everyone to think she was a witch. But the misunderstanding of “horology” leads to unfunny running gags that gradually become more insipid.

The script was penned by Jeff Nathanson. With a story so tangled and contrived, it feels more like his previous work “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” than “Catch Me If You Can.” One can only hope he’ll do better with “The Lion King.” What made Jack Sparrow such a compelling character in “Curse of the Black Pearl” was that he had a goal. He wanted his ship back. By the time we catch up with him here, he is down on his luck for reasons that are never explained. Nathanson provides him no motivation, no driving reason to do anything besides stare into a bottle of rum. This script gives us a Jack Sparrow who is impossibly boring.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg are out of their depth with this big budget movie. On the surface, it mostly looks fine, and the cast does work fine together. But everything feels slightly off. From the pacing of the overall story to effects that don’t always quite work this film is simply too big for them. It is clear from the beginning they were just content to let Johnny Depp be Johnny Depp. That works in some cases. Here, it was too much. He needed to be reigned in. Or pushed a little more. Rønning and Sandberg won an Oscar for the Norwegian film, “Kon-Tiki.” They are the latest example of white male directors who find moderate success with one or two projects and are then bestowed with a huge studio film and a $230 million budget.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales“Dead Men Tell No Tales” does have some redeeming qualities, though. Namely, Javier Bardem and, to a lesser extent, Geoffrey Rush. Bardem excels at villainous roles and he provides just the right amount of villainy here. The scenes he shares with Geoffrey Rush are almost worth sitting through the rest of the movie. Similar to Depp, Rush revives Captain Barbosa in similar ways. He, however, seems to care about the role and puts in the effort to keep things interesting.

Overall, “Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales” is not the worst movie to hit theaters in 2017. But it is far from the best. Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer struck gold with “The Curse of the Black Pearl.” But after seeing this film, it appears they buried their treasure and lost the map.

GRADE: (★★)

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