Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg
Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario
(Walt Disney Pictures)
US theatrical: 26 May 2017
UK theatrical: 26 May 2017
Watching the fifth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales, leaves you wishing that the living sometimes followed their example.
Okay, that isn’t entirely fair. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg haven’t made a disastrous movie. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has a couple of inspired action set pieces and a few chuckles, but it’s wildly uneven, mostly due to its lackluster “hero” and unnecessarily cluttered plot.
Though Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is to be commended for trying to make alcoholism fun again, watching Depp channel his best Dudley Moore (circa 1981’s Arthur) becomes a decidedly tedious experience. Sparrow’s introduction—unconscious and snoring inside of a supposedly impenetrable bank vault on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin—is emblematic of his under-written, uninspired, and unmotivated character.
The dirty old swashbuckler neither wants nor learns anything during this bloated endurance test of a film. It’s almost admirable, in a perverse way, how Sparrow refuses to take a single step in his development as a human being. He gladly trades his magic compass, which points its wielder in the direction of that which they most desire, for a bottle of cheap hooch. It’s unclear if the screenwriters intended this to be symbolic of his apathy, but the otherwise pedestrian script suggests it’s merely unintentional irony.
Lacking a dynamic, motivated hero doesn’t necessarily doom your movie to becoming an interminable slog. Tom Hardy’s Mad Max from 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road lacks all motivation but the basic instinct to survive. He gets swept into adventurous folly against his own better judgment, kicking and grunting the entire way. Max is a secondary character in his own story; a man who slowly comes to believe in something greater than himself, if only for a few fleeting moments.
What Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales lacks, of course, is the indomitable presence of Furiosa to pull Jack Sparrow toward the light. Instead, we get a murderer’s row of dull characters that are about 1.5 dimensions shy of being two dimensional.
There’s the young Henry (Brenton Thwaites), who schemes to find the Triton of Poseidon so he may reverse the curse on his father (Orlando Bloom), who is doomed to the watery nightmare of captaining the sunken Flying Dutchman. To say that Thwaites lacks screen presence would be criminally understating his disastrous impact on the movie. Watching him is like being stuck inside the monotonous hiss of the radiator from Eraserhead (1977) or Dave Bowman’s space helmet from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); a sucking void from which there is no escape.
Kaya Scodelario and her magic cleavage fare slightly better as Carina, an amateur astronomer (labeled as a witch by the local yokels) who thinks she can find the Triton by reading a map in the stars. Her father left her the diary of Galileo, which contains a map that “no man can read”. Yes, it’s a completely ridiculous and lazy device to promote ‘girl power’ in a film that is otherwise insulting to women at every turn. Take, for instance, the pitifully misguided scene in which Jack is forced to marry a slovenly woman with sores on her face. Hilarity (doesn’t) ensue when Jack is ordered to kiss the bride. It’s the kind of obvious humor you’d find in a Sandler film, and, frighteningly, is executed twice as clumsily.
Javier Bardem as the perpetually disintegrating Captain Salazar
The villainy is supplied by Pirates of the Caribbean veteran Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, and newcomer to the franchise, Javier Bardem, as the ghostly Butcher of the Sea, Captain Salazar. In his previous life, Salazar hunted and exterminated pirates on the open sea before he met his match in Jack Sparrow. Tricked into the Devil’s Triangle, a jagged graveyard of shipwrecks and hellish obstacles, the ghost of Salazar and his crew of partially decomposed apparitions are trapped until Sparrow’s compass releases them… or something.
Rush is solid as always, providing the only shreds of recognizable humanity in the film, and getting the closest to resembling a proper character arc. Bardem, a largely computer-generated creation, looks astounding with his ethereal hair and shattered skull, but he doesn’t get much scenery to chew. He does, however, captain a wickedly cool ship, complete with the wooden skeleton of a hull that resembles a demented centipede as it rises from the sea and devours enemy vessels.
With no interesting characters to lean on, Rønning and Sandberg need lots of imaginative action set pieces to provide any thrills. Sadly, the action is generic and drags on for far too long, which doesn’t help the already lethargic pacing. The only exceptions are a crackerjack finalé in Poseidon’s tomb, and Sparrow’s escape from Saint Martin. The latter set piece features a delightful visual gag of a revolving guillotine poised precariously above Sparrow’s neck.
Mostly, we just get lots and lots of plot, none of which is interesting or particularly necessary. Everybody wants Poseidon’s Triton (which seems to do everything but cure cancer in this mythology), except when they decide to chase Sparrow’s compass, instead. There are listless love plots, manipulative family drama, and a hero in Sparrow who spends most of his time bound and gagged. In retrospect, perhaps that was a wise narrative choice.
As a fan of action-adventure films, it’s instructive to compare Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales with a similar swashbuckler, 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both deal with a large cast of eccentric characters being led by a somewhat reluctant, conflicted hero. The difference being that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 takes the time to develop each character and gives them a compelling goal, while Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales fails to create characters that can carry the action.
No one expects Shakespearean flourishes from a movie based on a theme park ride, but they do expect to have some fun. Jack Sparrow should have just slept this one off.