Film Review: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’

Pirates of the Caribbean
Courtesy of Disney

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise steers off-course in this drab fifth entry.

When Disney first announced plans to build a feature film out of its venerable Pirates of the Caribbean ride, there was little reason to expect anything more than a grab for quick cash and a few Disneyland cross-promotional opportunities. To just about everyone’s surprise, Gore Verbinski’s 2003 “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was an inspired piece of old-school popcorn entertainment; more clever, more fun, and fundamentally riskier than it had any right to be.

Now, 14 years and four films later, the “Pirates” franchise has finally delivered exactly what cynics had expected all along. Containing only the faintest traces of the spark that turned this once unpromising idea into a nearly four billion-dollar enterprise, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is a mercenary, visually unappealing exercise in brand maintenance. The franchise has lost a bit of its luster with every successive installment, but never has a “Pirates” film felt this inessential, this depressingly pro forma. It will surely make money, and the estimated wait times for its namesake ride will spike in Disney parks worldwide. But considering the quality of some of the other big-money franchises in Disney’s fleet, “Pirates” needs to make a far better case for its seaworthiness if it expects to see future voyages.

After the triumph of “Black Pearl,” the two Verbinski-directed sequels grew ever more bloated and obsessed with their own cod-mythology as they went; the fourth film, directed by Rob Marshall, reined in some of its predecessors’ more lumbering tendencies, yet seemed to leave the franchise with nowhere to go. Hence, the studio has resorted to a “soft reboot,” which in this case means mimicking the structure and story beats of the series’ first installment, with markedly diminished returns.

Once again serving as both protagonist and comic relief, Johnny Depp reprises his role as drunken, dissolute, sporadically decipherable pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. His performance here is no better and no worse than in his previous two or three outings, though what once was a bracingly anarchic approach is starting to feel a bit old hat, like a standup comic rehashing vintage punchlines for cheers of recognition, rather than laughs.

(One hesitates to delve too deeply into Depp’s offscreen scandals, but a key factor in “Pirates’” success was the way Sparrow both melded with and exemplified Depp’s early-2000s reputation as Hollywood’s most beloved iconoclast. Now that his public image is less rosy, audience indulgence of his idiosyncrasies might be less forgiving.)

Once again, Sparrow begins the film attempting a heist, and subsequently facing imminent execution at the hands of some dour British soldiers. And once again, he makes the acquaintance of two straight-arrow youngsters. This time, his sidekicks are Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of the first trilogy’s Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley); and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a defiant, proto-feminist astronomer accused of witchcraft. The film gives these two precious little to play, but considering their broad physical resemblances and virtually identical character types, it’s hard not to compare Thwaites’ and Scodelario’s performances to Bloom’s and Knightley’s in the first “Pirates,” and the comparison does them no favors.

Succinct plotting has never been among the “Pirates” films’ virtues, so suffice it to say that all three have various reasons to seek the film’s central MacGuffin: The Trident of Poseidon, which has the power to undo curses. Standing in their way is a fearsome band of undead Spanish sailors lead by “el matador del mar,” Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), who is soon joined by Sparrow nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Subjects of the film’s most striking visual effects, some of Salazar’s partially mutilated ghouls look terrifying, while others look like incompletely-buffered Playstation 2 characters.

Lackluster as it is, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is not an aggressively unpleasant time at the cinema. An early scene featuring an unusually literal bank robbery is well staged and entertaining, establishing a high watermark of spectacle that the film never again threatens to reach. The luminous Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani hams it up enjoyably as a heavily henna’ed witch. Paul McCartney has a bit part as a pirate named Uncle Jack, which is fun in the sense that it makes you stop and think, “hey, that’s Paul McCartney.” Buckles are swashed, and do is derred.

But rarely is one ever swept up in the sanitized pirate fantasy that used to be the franchise’s raison d’etre – indeed, were it not for the occasional wide shots of the digitally-sweetened ocean, it would be easy to forget the film even takes place on the water. This is strange considering Ronning and Sandberg’s previous film, the Oscar-nominated “Kon-Tiki,” was set almost entirely on a boat, skillfully relying on tiny sonic details and slightly off-kilter angles to suggest a life at sea. Strikingly little of that sensibility survives here: Shot in Australia, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” rarely appears to be taking place anywhere other than a soundstage, featuring pirates posed against unnaturally hued skies, and a foggy color palette that ranges from gray to slate, gunmetal, granite, and ash.

One hopes the directors plundered enough booty on this excursion to quickly get back to what they do best. As for the series, it’s taking on water fast.

Film Review: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales'

Reviewed at AMC Century City, Los Angeles, May 19, 2017. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 129 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Pictures release of a Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer Films presentation. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Executive producers, Joe Caracciolo Jr., Chad Oman, Terry Rossio, Mike Stenson, Brigham Taylor.

Crew

Directed by Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg. Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson, from a story by Nathanson, Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert, Ted Elliott. Camera (color): Paul Cameron. Editor: Roger Barton, Leigh Folsom Boyd. Music: Geoff Zanelli. Production designer: Nigel Phelps.

With

Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Orlando Bloom, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, Stephen Graham, Keira Knightley, Martin Klebba, Paul McCartney.

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  1. Tony says:

    The critics got this very wrong , they pan this film for what reason ? It ties the past pirates very well together. Action from beginning to end, special effects were very solid , story was well done , and the acting was done very well to,

  2. isv says:

    Javier Bardem is the worst actor in the world. His performance sucks. He is a big mistake, he ruined the entire movie! The colours of the movie looked too green, too violet, too grey, too false. It’s like to see a DVD or Blu-Ray in big screen, looks bad. This movie is the proof that blu-ray and DVD’s are ruining movies now, not CGI.

  3. Ssara says:

    Your review has some grammatical errors. You never start a sentence with “and” being one of them.
    I would have someone with brains proof read it first

  4. Royce Mathew says:

    (1) – Until you see / read all of the documented facts and evidence – and fully understand who Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott are – and what they did, – then you don’t know the truth. You also have no idea of what Marty Sklar and Jason Surrell did either. (2) – Several lawsuits were filed because of Disney – as they use various deceptive trickery, lies and fraud to magically prevent any accountability. For example, the first suit was stopped because Disney had pretended that they were willing to quietly discuss/settle. — (3) My fight for full accountability will continue — and the complete truth will prevail. – I am a proud published independent artist, who once believed in Disney, but that company (due to Michael D. Eisner & Robert Iger) is proven to be corrupt. – Shame on anyone who belittles me or tells me that my fight is a waste of time. — Shame on Johnny Depp, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg for looking the other way while I fight for accountability. – Trust me, this serious matter is far from over.

  5. paully says:

    They should switch it up to “One Piece” , the Japanese Manga/Anime powerhouse Pirate Adventure by Eiichiro Oda.
    Largest selling book(s) in the world, outselling the bible.. Not sarcasm..

  6. tlsnyder42 says:

    This is one of the dumbest reviews ever written. The movie is great, with a lot of heart and a moving finish that will bring tears to fans of the series.

    • Are you a Disney plant or something. This movie was terrible and the above review was quite accurate. Grow a brain at some point

    • Vick says:

      There is no way you could know unless you stole a copy of it. Its not been released yet

      • James says:

        I agree I loved the first two or three but these last two especially this last one was almost unwatchable I believe the first two are so good that I could watch them multiple times over the years and still be quite entertained but I just think this last movie completely ruined the franchise for me and I will not be watching another one !!! Very disappointed with this last movie

    • Kaboom! says:

      The “moving finish” would have more impact only if they don’t make any more Pirates movies.

  7. Leon says:

    The first movie was pretty good, much better than I expected. I think I’m still watching the second one, it was so long and pointless. Haven’t and won’t see any of the others.

  8. Linda says:

    You’re an ass. You’ve lost your muchness.

  9. Cecil B da Mill says:

    Like the rest of it, completely unwatchable. The notion of an effeminate gay pirate is other worldly and an insult to any miscreant who sailed the Spanish main with a dagger in their mouth

    • cadavra says:

      “Effeminate” and “gay” are two entirely different things. No gay man aggressively pursues women (and gets his face slapped so often) the way that Sparrow does. And given that the character was based on Keith Richards (hardly a gay role model), the accusation is even more ludicrous.

    • tlsnyder42 says:

      I’d rather see another PIRATES movie than another boring, depressing Oscar winner or Cannes Film Festival “winner.”

    • milo says:

      Like the rest of what?

      • Player87 says:

        Really? You don’t get what he means by the rest of it? The rest of the franchise movies. They all are terrible.

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