Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review: The Series Remains Cursed

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Who wanted to make this movie? The plot of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales—2017’s winner for clunkiest title—revolves around Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann’s (Kiera Knightley) son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) joining forces with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to find Poseidon’s trident, which will supposedly set Will free of the curse left on him at the end of the series’ second sequel, At World’s End. Is Dead Men meant to be a nostalgia-fueled Pirates reunion tour? It isn’t, Knightley doesn’t even get a line. Is it meant to introduce “The Next Generation?” If so, the theoretical sixth film already isn’t shaping up too well. Is it a cash cow? Bingo!

The previous film, On Stranger Tides—a film I know I saw, but can’t tell you anything about—made over a billion dollars at the box office, roughly 80% of which was made overseas. That installment was following the two ill-received Gore Verbinski sequels. But as rough as the critical waters might be, the seas are calm for audiences and fans. So now we have Dead Men Tell No Tales, a film I’ll surely forget most of by next week (frankly, I’m not even sure Depp would remember making this one at all).

After an extended opening introducing us to Henry and the film’s villain, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, who I assume lost a bet), we catch up with Jack as he and his crew are trying to rob a bank. What plays out is an elaborate set piece where the crew ends up pulling an entire building around with them through a civilized tropical island as Jack fumbles his way in and out of trouble. But when they get to their ship, they find that all the gold has fallen out of the safe they were trying to steal. It’s a pretty good metaphor for the film as a whole: a bunch of hooplah for nothing. And the chief problem at this point might be Jack Sparrow himself.

Returning to a role that garnered him an Oscar nomination and two Golden Globe nominations, Depp has turned Jack into a list of tropes (bumbling, drunk, scheming, etc.) instead of an actual character. When we meet Jack in the still-great series opener, Curse of the Black Pearl, he’s a pirate that manages to turn his buffoonery into seemingly miraculous successes. He’s a man with a unique brand of honor, but honorable nonetheless. In Dead Men, he’s a selfish, petulant child who seems to have succumbed to alcoholism since his last adventure. It’s like watching an artist celebrated for their concept albums try to play the hits without the meat and bones supporting them. There was a time when Depp in this role was legitimately Oscar worthy. But now the well has run dry.

And thus it’s up to the new cast members to pull the weight of the film. As Henry, Thwaites isn’t up to the task, mostly there to look pretty. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem’s Salazar mostly just yells “Jack Sparrow!” with varying degrees of bombast, as the latest going-for-broke performance in villainy that fell flat on its face. Faring better, however, is Carina (Kaya Scodelario), a young astronomer that pretty much every extra likes to shout “witch!” at. The film is a little too aggressively feminist, coming across as disingenuous, as if ticking a box, but Carina gets points anyway for being a heroine that uses her brain as much as her physicality. Her ties to Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, the only legacy cast member still trying) do their best to lend this hollow sequel a heart.

The success rate is pretty low, unfortunately. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg fail to ever get this blockbuster going. The pacing moves glacially until the climax just sort of manifests around the 90 minute mark. What was supposed to be a sendoff for the series, supposedly inspired by the tone of the original, proves that Pirates should have permanently docked a few sequels ago. But don’t worry, an after-credits stinger teases a sixth film to give Disney another chance to right the ship. Don’t hold your breath. Grade: D

By Matt Dougherty

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