Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn’t try to be either a good, or bad, movie. It’s a Pirates sequel – where the self-barometer is always leveled at “fun” or “not fun.” Thankfully, it’s fun!
In the age of recycled entertainment, the latest film takes the familiar form of its three previous sequels – it’s mercifully or unjustly more of the same, depending on your vantage point.
Whether you enjoy the continued jaunt of Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow was established with Dead Man’s Chest. The original was a monumental blockbuster smash that netted solid reviews, bountiful troves of box office gold, an Oscar nod for Depp and a spot at the iconic pop culture table for the 2000s.
The sequels made lots of money and had lots of fans, but the critical support began to wane with each and every passing subplot and minute of the elongated runtime. The problems of all four Pirates sequels – including the most recent release – come from the plotting and character development, which seem to take a back bench to outlandish set-pieces, hit-and-miss humor, fairly-impressive CGI (the first two sequels were lauded for their effects) and lots of Jack Sparrow.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is fun. It’s not super great and has lots of problems, but you can’t help but enjoy it. Is it superficial? Sure. Too focused on glad-handing with the fans of the series to try anything new? Absolutely. Do we need more of these movies? By no means!
But it is a breezy and familiar two-and-a-half-hours – you’ve been here before, but directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (of the far-superior seafaring tale Kon Tiki) take the series formula and iron out as many wrinkles as they can.
Their film is endearing. While the plot results in head-scratches and just a few yawns, Depp’s consistency with Capt. Jack and the directors’ desire to craft as many zany action sequences makes this film enjoyable. Not great, but y’know, pretty fun.
The newest film follows, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the wayward son of Will and Elizabeth Turner (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the original films), who teams up with Capt. Jack, his crew, and an astronomer (Kayla Scodelario) to find the Trident of Poseidon and break his father’s curse (he’s slumming with the crew of the Flying Dutchman, which was Davy Jones’ ship in the original film).
But, unrelated to all of that, a haphazard Jack, having taken too many sips on the bottle, has hit rock bottom and given away his magic compass. The compass has unleashed an old foe from his entrapped state: Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar, because all of these films need an outlandish supernatural villain. So, he’s out to kill Jack. Revenge and stuff.
But, wait, there’s more! Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) is super successful now as a pirate. His crew gets tangled in with everything because Salazar is sinking all of his ships and killing his crews. And, lest we forget, the British government is also in these movies, because they’re always involved, if only to be the third wheel villain (the way they are dispatched is hilarious and shows that the poor screenwriter felt compelled to get rid of them before the third act).
So, while all of this is going on (again, this is actually a step down from the last few Pirates sequels), the audience has to try and enjoy it. And, for all the back-and-forth, it is actually enjoyable!
Rønning and Sandberg have a ball with the set-pieces. While the film has a surprising lack of them, when the action gets going, things get breezy, Depp puts on his best jester’s hat and the cannonballs roar.
The action in the film’s first two acts is relatively inspired – a bank heist gone awry, an execution scene gone awry, an escape from a ship gone awry (the ghost sharks scene) and a flashback gone awry all work well to establish the grand old secret sauce to the Pirates universe – things work best when they’re not going as planned.
As bland as the plot can be, there’s a simple joy to be found in watching Jack Sparrow flailing about on a rogue guillotine, unaware of how close he is to losing his head on each and every random swing. Depp is so great at hamming it up in those moments, and Sparrow is the best vehicle he’s ever been given to show off this talent. Sometimes, his overacting is just too much (see Alice in Wonderland), but here, it’s just right.
The third act introduces a fan-fiction-y twist that is totally made by Rush’s performance (great actors like Rush can elevate any material), but finding the trident and what ensues is a relative drag compared to the final fights we’ve seen in this series (one movie ended in ships battling over a whirlpool!). But such is a pirate’s life.
Thwaites is pretty good here at channeling young Orlando Bloom, and Scodelario takes a one-note character (the smart girl among dumb guys) and fleshes it out as much as she can. The young duo plays well off each other, even if the plot doesn’t give them much to do.
Bardem is fine – he’s too talented not to be at least fine. His character is odd, but there’s something kind of funny about his ransacked ghost pirate repeatedly chanting Jack Sparrow’s name as he mercilessly tries to squash the petulant vagabond. Their scenes border on Tom and Jerry-levels of cat-and-mouse, but Bardem oversells the angst, which is quite fitting for the material.
Again, this film is problematic, but also quite potent in providing light summertime enjoyment. The great debate amongst film critics (well, one of them) is how to level criticism when it comes to blockbuster entertainment.
There are plenty of outstanding examples of big-budget films that strive to be more (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for instance), but what do you do with a drunken sailor like Capt. Jack who just wants to show you a good time?
Judge it accordingly, I suppose. The newest Pirates film isn’t all that great, but it is enjoyable. If this series be your fancy, sail away. If not, stay at the dock.
After all, dead-bored movie watchers tell no tales.