5 out of 10
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow
Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review:
The conventional wisdom of the television show is that viewers come for the initial set up but stay for the characters, which is why television shows consistently shift to who loves who and who hates who and who is related to who the longer they’re on the air (Television shows also register fewer and fewer viewers with every season and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a correlation, but hey, what do I know?)
As different as they can be, there is a lot of similarity between long-running film series and television in this way: Whatever drew viewers initially, it is the characters the audience loves best who keep bringing viewers back for sequels, transforming all long-runners into meditations on family with more than a hint of melodrama.
See, for example, the Fast and the Furious series or any superhero franchise that makes it past 2 or 3 films (this is the driving idea behind all Marvel movies now). Sure there are series which routinely wipe out their casts (Alien) or just keep repeating the same dynamics without letting anyone change (James Bond), but they tend to be the exceptions. But is the conventional wisdom right? Is this what viewers really want? For better or worse, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is going to answer that question.
It’s been, within the film world, twenty years since Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) first washed up on the shores of Jamaica and since then he’s left a shipful of magic treasures, ruined lives, angry ghosts and improbable adventures in his wake. All those years of living on the edge have both taken their toll and created a mound of debts to be paid off and all of it comes to a head when Jack finds himself headed to the guillotine, his crew finally abandoning him, and his ship the Black Pearl still trapped in the magic bottle Blackbeard stuck it in.
His only chance at freedom is the arrival of now-grown Henry Turner (Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley), who has never given up on releasing his father from Davy Jones’ curse and returning him to the land of the living. His only chance to break the curse is the mythical Trident of Poseidon, and his only chance to find the trident is with the help of the self-styled ‘greatest-pirate-in-the-world’ Captain Jack Sparrow.
If that sounds like a mouthful, wait until you’re sitting down and experiencing it in never-ending waves of exposition. Though it’s the shortest of all the Pirates films, Dead Men takes the longest to get going. It’s almost one hour into this two-hour film before Jack and crew finally leave St. Martin to track down the Trident, primarily because of the number of characters and related exposition which has to be introduced and explained. [And reduces many of those characters to immediately explaining their backstories to whoever will listen to them for five minutes, like that guy at work everyone tries to avoid making eye contact with].
Like many franchise makers before them, new directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) have decided that familiarity breeds not contempt but warm fuzzies, filling Dead Men Tell No Tales to the brim with variations on well-known Pirates bits. Every former crew member of the Black Pearl willing to come back has, including the treacherous Captain Barbossa (Rush) and Depp’s best foil, first mate Kevin McNally. Which is fine as far as it goes, except characters keep getting piled on, mainly because some version of them existed in previous films with no thought given to how to make them work in this new one.
There’s a new unstoppable ghost pirate (Bardem) who wants revenge on Jack, a new no-nonsense military captain (Wenham) out to arrest everyone and take all treasures for England, and even another spunky heroine (Scodelario) to hang around with Henry and help him drag Jack unwillingly into adventure. Depp himself is left to repeat a lot of bits and jokes from the various earlier films in the series and try to get by on his considerable charm, but that’s asking for a lot.
The original Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t the greatest adventure film in the world, but it had a lot going for it in Depp’s willingness to dig into the Jack Sparrow persona and lack of fear of a twisty plot and characters continually backstabbing one another. For a movie based on a ride, it was surprisingly inventive and eager to create a new vision of itself. Dead Men Tell No Tales won’t do more than recast elements from the first film without bothering to figure out why they worked the first time through or if they should be repeated.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and writer Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) must have realized this on some level, because they spend much of the second half trying introduce dramatic stakes by revealing hidden connections between everyone – long time characters have children who happen to be freshly-introduced characters, long standing but never spoken backstories are revealed – and wallowing in them like a pig in slop. The hope seems to be that audiences will be so taken with the raw emotion they won’t notice how preposterous it all is. It is the cheapest of bait and switch.
Production wise, Dead Men looks as good as any of the previous films, particularly the moody cinematography from Paul Cameron, who had the envious job of taking over the series from Dariusz Wolszki. Captain Salazar’s introduction amid a flaming wreck with ashes falling all around him is as potent an image as any in the series.
But that is frequently all Dead Men has to offer with so much of the series’ former ingenuity now turned to rank copying. As charismatic as Bardem can be, no one yet can match up to Rush’s smarmy villainy (a lacking made apparent every time Rush appears on screen) and nor is there, among all the frenzied set pieces, anything as ridiculous or joyful as the three-man brawl on a rolling water wheel from Pirates 2.
Ultimately, though, it was exactly the character interactions and relationships which Dead Men seeks to emulate which made at least the first two films a solid basis for a franchise. Dead Men Tell No Tales can’t seem to figure out that merely copying that won’t somehow imbue the film with the same sense of magic. Instead it’s the opposite, a copy of a copy of a copy which is slowly fading away to gibberish.