Nearly 14 years ago, Johnny Depp monumentally shifted the heading of his career with a risky role as a capering pirate in a movie inspired by an amusement park ride. The source material spurred snarking, and Disney execs worried that the eccentric character actor’s take on their mischievous rogue was too weird to be embraced by mainstream audiences.
But Captain Jack Sparrow was not only instantly iconic and quickly beloved, he went on to spawn a wave of blockbuster sequels. However, the latest Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales suggests the time has come for this franchise to hang up its tricorne hat.
Jack is back with his liquid gambol, wacky one-liners, smudged eyeliner, and a symphony of clattering hair accessories. But this time the story follows — more or less — a new pair of seafarers, resulting in a soft remake of The Curse of The Black Pearl. Instead of the noble non-pirate Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), we’ve got his tenacious grown son Henry (Brenton Thwaites), who quests to free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Rather than Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the gentlewoman who longs for adventure, we’ve got Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a lock-picking astronomer determined to track down the mythical Trident of Poseidon. That’s this movie’s magical McGuffin, a dynamic doodad that wields immense power over the sea and all who sail it. Naturally, it factors into the revenge plot of the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), whose only wish in the wide world is to see Jack Sparrow (Depp) suffer. And so off the ships race to follow a map “no man may read” to the greatest treasure the sea contains.
Like Will and Elizabeth in the first film, Henry and Carina are meant to press on the plot and eye-roll as Jack spurs slapstick-rich action sequences and inexplicably tumbles to survival with a crooked grin. But there’s a few kinks in this plan. First off, Thwaites lacks even the meager charisma Bloom boasted in Black Pearl, so he’s not just outshone by Depp’s cartoonish buffoonery, but barely registers onscreen at all. Meanwhile, Scodelario holds her own with a steely gaze and a chutzpah that makes her fit naturally with the blustering likes of Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). But this charm imbalance makes their innate romance fall flat, as does a bloated script that drowns this lackluster love line amid convoluted exposition, confounding new mythology, and an assault of new characters. When a British fleet abruptly shows up to futilely chase for the Trident, they are an obvious afterthought. And so much stuff just makes for a mess more than a movie.
Worse yet, Depp has undoubtedly lost a step and some enthusiasm over the years. Oh, he’s willing to mug and yowl and drunkenly bumble about as he’s done for the first four films. But his comedic timing is woefully off, making his already lame jokes land with a cringe-inducing thud, like when he quips of Barbossa and the weight of his cannon’s armory, “A one-legged man…with 18-pound balls?…No wonder he walks funny.” That’s the level of humor at play in this family movie — poorly penned, sloppily delivered genitalia jokes.
Thankfully, Rush and Bardem bring some pluck and welcomed theatricality to this high-seas misadventure. As yo would expect, Rush relishes every scene-stealing moment as the rival captain who fetishizes hats and food. And while he’s given short-shrift of a potentially juicy subplot twist, Rush still manages to remind us of the fun a swaggering, self-centered pirate can bring. As for Bardem, he plays a ghoul whose flesh is cracked by a long-ago fire, his hair always flowing about as if he’s still drowning, and his mouth spills forth a foul black fluid as he spits threats. Yet, while this costume’s visual effects are striking, they are at times distracting, pulling focus from Bardem’s dedicated and delightful scenery chewing.
Too, too much is the sin that sinks Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. There’s too, too much story, too many characters to keep track or care for, and too much nautical legends and nonsense to follow. Dare I say audiences just want Jack and some friends to go on a madcap adventure full of action and spiked with fateful lunacy? Why, then, does every action sequence feel not like an exciting opportunity, but more like an obligatory dirge? Directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning won praise for their masterful helming of the sea-set docudrama Kon-Tiki, so it’s an absolute shock their sea battle scenes are so, well, unsee-able! A dramatic showdown between Jack and Salazar’s crews is draped in darkness, drenched in sea spray, masked by fog, and marred by rain. It’s nearly impossible to make out what’s going on. And even when action setups rollout in sunshine, an astonishingly jarring edit still makes them incomprehensible. Thankfully, characters bridge the gaps by pronouncing to each other the key developments these actions scenes failed to express with visuals, because if we can’t actually see a key character get kidnapped and carried off, it’s crucial that someone in the film at least explain to us that’s what happened.
In the end, it’s a sinister sea creature withinDead Men Tell No Tales that proves its perfect metaphor: zombie sharks. Zombies are scary. Sharks are scary. So it seems simple logic that zombie sharks would be twice as scary at least! But when Salazar sets loose a band of rotted snarling sharks who are pitted with holes, and ragged about the fins, they just aren’t. They nightmarish jaws are there. They move fast and chomp ferociously. But these bygone beasts seem to just be going through the motions, not realizing they are laughable, lame and dead.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens May 26.