×

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

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

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Film

  • Dan Stevens

    Dan Stevens Joins Netflix Comedy 'Eurovision'

    “Legion” star Dan Stevens has joined the cast of Netflix feature “Eurovision,” alongside Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams and Pierce Brosnan. The British actor, who made his name in “Downton Abbey” and recently finished a three-year run on FX’s “X-Men” spin-off “Legion” from Noah Hawley, will play Alexander Lemtov, a Russian contestant taking part in the [...]

  • THE-SONG-OF-NAMES

    Tim Roth, Clive Owen-Starrer 'The Song Of Names' To Close San Sebastian

    Starring Clive Owen and Tim Roth, Canadian François Girard’s historical drama “The Song of Names” will close the 67th San Sebastian Festival on Sept. 28. World premiering at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival as a Gala Presentation, “The Song of Names” will play out of competition at what will be its international premiere. Hanway Films [...]

  • Dogwoof Boards Venice-Bound Imelda Marcos Doc

    Dogwoof Boards Venice-Bound Imelda Marcos Documentary ‘The Kingmaker’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Dogwoof has boarded Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker,” about Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. The hotly anticipated feature doc delves into the disturbing legacy of the Marcos regime and Imelda’s attempts to aid her son’s political career. It will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and then screen at [...]

  • Yao Chen in “Send Me to

    Cheng Cheng Films Nabs North American Rights to China's 'Send Me to the Clouds'

    New York-based distributor Cheng Cheng Films has acquired North American rights to first-time Chinese director Teng Congcong’s comedy drama “Send Me to the Clouds,” starring and produced by A-list actress Yao Chen. The company is planning a theatrical release for fall 2019. “Cheng Cheng has always championed films with strong female leads,” the firm said [...]

  • A White White Day

    Film Movement Brings ‘A White, White Day’ to the U.S. (EXCLUSIVE)

    OSLO  —  New-York based distributor Film Movement has acquired U.S. rights to critically-lauded Icelandic drama “A White, White Day,” today’s opening film at New Nordic Films in Haugesund. In a separate deal, sales agent New Europe Film Sales has closed French-speaking Canada with Funfilm and English-speaking Canada with Game Theory. Hlynur Pálmason’s sophomore pic, “A [...]

  • (from left) Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)

    Korea Box Office: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ Topples ‘Exit,’ ‘Roar to Victory’  

    Opening on Wednesday, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” debuted on top of the South Korean box office. Showing on some 1,311 screens nationwide, the UPI release earned $15.1 million from 2.03 million admissions over five days. That included the four-day National Liberation Day weekend. “The Battle: Roar to Victory” remained in second. The [...]

  • Tracy Morgan Netflix stand-up special

    Film News Roundup: Tracy Morgan Joins Eddie Murphy's 'Coming 2 America'

    In today’s film news roundup, Tracy Morgan and Michael Rooker book roles in major movies, and Gravitas buys “Christmas Break-In.” CASTINGS Tracy Morgan has signed on to appear in Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America” sequel as the brother of Lesley Jones’ character. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is directing the project with Murphy, Kevin [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content