On slightly better tides.
I’ll say this much for it: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is better than its 2011 predecessor, On Stranger Tides, even if it doesn’t bring much of anything new to the long-running franchise or do much to justify its existence. It’s a less bloated and meandering Pirates film than the last few sequels have been, and has more heart than On Stranger Tides, but all of this is damning it with faint praise. It never quite manages to recapture the magic that launched this film series to such stratospheric heights back in 2003. I left the theater relieved that Dead Men Tell No Tales is better than the last Pirates movie and also hoping that this IS the last Pirates movie.
Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow and the film’s new young leads, sailor Henry and astronomer Carina, all take turns at driving the plot that it becomes tough to discern whose story this ultimately is. All three, as well as the villainous Captain Salazar, seek the Trident of Poseidon for their own reasons, but this only splits the focus on which character we’re supposed to be most invested in seeing attain it. On top of that, Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Hector Barbossa is also back in the mix and playing a pivotal enough role that his choices affect the storyline as much as the main trio does. So, again, who is steering this ship?
Henry and Carina’s motives are in keeping with the Pirates series’ hallmarks of family, revenge and redemption, and love and curses. Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario try to develop a chemistry between their respective characters and with Jack, but Henry and Carina’s romance feels forced and unearned. It plays out as an obligatory add-on to a story that would work just the same without it.
While they are a stronger duo for Jack to interact with than On Stranger Tides’ unconvincing missionary and mermaid, and their respective arcs do lend the film some genuine moments of heart and emotion, the series has never quite regained the dynamic that Jack enjoyed with the original trilogy’s Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner. Bloom and Knightley were simply more charming together and their characters more engaging than any of the couplings the films have offered since.
Javier Bardem’s ghoulish pirate hunter Salazar never amounts to much more than a sight gag, and not a terribly impressive one at that, as the digitally altered ghost sailors all look dodgy. The first movie’s visual effects look better and that film is fourteen years old. There is also just not that much of a character for Bardem to play, and the Oscar winner never gets a truly great, villainous moment for the audience to relish seeing him be bad. And after witnessing so many supernatural enemies and sea creatures over the past four films, a ghost crew proves a surprisingly tepid and uninspired menace here. The undead sharks Jack and Henry fight at one point have more bite than this retread on the first film’s baddies.
The action is big but never breathtaking, its most notable, rousing set pieces involving a building being dragged through the streets by runaway horses and our heroes’ escape from a public execution, both of which adeptly mix broad physical comedy with some inventive stunts. These action scenes are certainly more on-point though than the humor, as many of the jokes – and, this being a Pirates movie, there is a constant barrage of gags – don’t always land. Which brings us to Jack Sparrow.
Jack’s schtick is so tired now – it’s been tired since the second film, frankly – but Johnny Depp does seem to be trying a wee bit harder to deliver here than he was in his sleepwalking turn in On Stranger Tides. Still, it is like seeing a classic rock band perform uninspired encores of their biggest hits, with only fleeting reminders of the magic that made you like their music to begin with.