A film review by Craig J. Koban June 4, 2017



2017, PG-13, 129 mins.


Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow  /  Javier Bardem as Captain Armando Salazar  /  Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner  /  Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth  /  Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa  /  Kevin McNally as Joshamee Gibbs  /  Stephen Graham as Scrum  /  Golshifteh Farahani as Shansa  /  David Wenham as Scarfield  /  Orlando Bloom as Will Turner  /  Martin Klebba as Marty  /  Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann  /  Paul McCartney as Uncle Jack

Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg  /  Written by Jeff Nathanson


The PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN cinematic universe has always maintained a love/hate relationship with many film critics.  

The first one way, way back in 2013 was infinitely better than any film based on a popular amusement park ride had any business of being.  THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL was triumphant in overcoming pre-release negative press and emerging as a genuine original for the swashbuckling pirate genre.  It was followed by three sequels that were universally panned by many with their respective and perceived diminishing returns, but I for one appreciated them all, with the exception of 2011's ON STRANGER TIDES.   

I don't count myself among those that dismiss the series as a whole after the franchise launching original, mostly because I derived great enjoyment from watching most of the PIRATES films.  Having seen DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (a tongue twister of a title if there ever was one), even the series apologist in me would have to admit that creative fatigue is starting to taint the seafaring misadventures of Captain Jack Sparrow.  Despite a welcome injection of new directors at the helm, a finely assembled cast of newcomers, and a climax that's surprisingly sensational and packs an unexpected dramatic punch for a few key characters, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES feels far too redundant of a sequel to bare a worthy comparison to the first three stellar films.  Beyond the film's multi-million dollar blockbuster sheen, it nevertheless feels wholly disposable.   



That's not to say that there aren't some pleasures to be had with revisiting this world and characters yet again.  Like ON STRANGER TIDES, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES opens with a charmingly inventive action sequence that highlights why Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is one of the more appealingly offbeat and unique characters of the movies.  There's a lavish unveiling ceremony for a new bank and its enormous metal safe on the isle of Saint Martin.  When it's opened a rather inebriated Jack is passed out on the inside, napping on untold amounts of loot.  Plans by his crew to steal the safe right out of the building (via a horse run carriage tied to it) fails miserably, seeing as they accidentally end up pulling the entire bank behind them, causing unpardonable damaging along the way.  By the time they secure the vault back to Jack's ship all of its currency has spilt out onto the streets during their flee from authorities.  There are a couple of slapstick beats here by Depp and company that would have made Buster Keaton proud. 

From here the film hones in - with intermittent and inconsistent levels of focus - on the overall arc of the story, which features the mystical Trident of Poseidon (or Brick Tamland's favorite weapon from ANCHORMAN), which contains powers so vast that it gives its wielder control over the seas and the ability to remove any curse (and a lot of characters in these films are indeed damned).  The trident is buried somewhere at an undisclosed location at the bottom of the ocean, but Henry (Brenton Thwaites) seems hell bent of securing it so that he can remove the curse placed upon his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, returning to the series after being absent in ON STRANGER TIDES), who's forever trapped on The Flying Dutchman and can only come on land every ten years to hook up with his wife (Keira Knightley, also returning, albeit in a blink-of-you'll-miss-her cameo). 

Now, locating said trident proves to be an impossible task, especially for the bumbling Jack and his equally insipid crew, but joining them on their quest is the determined Henry and Carina (the fetching Kaya Scodelario from THE MAZE RUNNER films), the former being an astronomer that believes that the key to finding the trident lays with following a map in the stars above.  Competing with Jack and his crew are Barbossa (series regular Geoffrey Rush) and the evil and undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a ghost-like corpse that leads a crew of ghouls and has a very personal vendetta against the hapless Jack that dates back several decades.  He blames Jack for his curse...and is among many in this series that blames Jack for something. 

When it comes to villains, the PIRATES films usually are on solid ground, and DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES gets a much needed unpredictable jolt of sinister menace with the addition of Bardem to this cast.  The Spanish actor does a bravura job of making his wronged captain both hauntingly creepy (the actor is buried under piles of thankless CGI to give him the appearance of always floating in water even when above it) and a contradictory figure of sympathy, which makes this antagonist a bit more compellingly rendered than I was expecting (granted, he does occupy a few scenes where he serves as a mechanical exposition dispensing machine to explain who he is, where he came from, and how he relates to Jack).  I also liked the headstrong spunk that Scodelario brings to her role as a misunderstood scientist (one of the film's more humorous recurring gags is every man's unwillingness to accept her as a woman of science and instead naively label her as a heretic and witch).  She's matched nicely with Thwaites, who has matinee idol good looks and youthful charm, but is laughably too old to be a plausible son to Knightley and Bloom (the actors are just 4 and 12 years older respectively than Thwaites). 

DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, as mentioned, reaches a fever point during its climax, which features all of its players convening at the final resting place of Poseidon's Trident and features a parting of the ocean that would make Cecile B. DeMille blush with envy.  If anything, the PIRATES films as a whole have always maintained a consistent level of consummate polish in terms of production design and visual effects, and DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is certainly no different; it's an endlessly handsome period fantasy film.  Some individual sequences are sublimely envisioned, such as a nifty one featuring zombified sharks attacking Jack and crew and a very clever early scene that showcases Jack very narrowly escaping beheading via a guillotine.  At just a tad over two hours, the film is also the shortest in the series, which may be a welcome relief for those that found some of the installments - like the near three hour AT WORLD'S END - to be watch checking endurance tests.  DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is certainly not as self-indulgently bloated as its prequels, which deserves merit. 

I guess the main issue here is that the Jeff Nathanson's (INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL) script is pretty flat footed out of the gate and takes an awfully long time to build towards any sustainable audience interest.  This sequel is high on character introductions and explanations and low of peppy character dynamics.  Sometimes to its great detriment, the film makes an abrupt stop for some ill conceived comedic vignettes, such as a tragically unfunny instance of Jack nearly being married to an obese elderly woman that's suffering from scabies that could have been excised from the film altogether.  That, and new directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (the duo behind the Oscar nominated KON-TIKI) never really seem to give their own aesthetic spin to the proceedings and instead just lazily mime the stylistic approach of what's come before.  In some cases they paint the screen with such dark dreariness (further covered by the already murky lens of 3D) that making out what's happening in scenes is next to impossible.  This series is seriously missing Gore Verbinski and the color and vibrancy he successfully brought to the first three films.   

Then there's Johnny Depp, who to be fair has single-handedly made the PIRATES franchise a popular box office dynamo and created such an indelible genre busting character (that, and far too many forget that he was Oscar nominated for his first performance in THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL).  For as much giddy fun as it has been to see Depp fuse himself to his most iconic role over the years, it's hard to ignore that his work in DEAN MEN TELL NO TALES lacks that ethereal glint of inspiration in his eyes; his passion for the role seems visibly sullied and, at this point, he seems to be continuing to play this role more out of financial and contractual obligation than for purely creative reasons.  Fourteen years ago Captain Jack Sparrow was a revitalizing breath of fresh air for a genre that was all but dead in the water, but now his drawing power and on screen magnetism are disappointingly dimmed. 

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES has been made not because there are worthwhile stories that need to be told in this universe; Disney keeps making them to pad their pocketbooks (the series as a whole has grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide).  This fifth film in the improbably successful franchise feels like a theme park ride that was once a massive draw and euphorically cherished, but now continues to chug along without any maintenance, updates, or improvements being made to accommodate for a new generation of riders.  May has been a month thus far of big budget and high marquee Hollywood sequels that have greatly disappointed me, and the regrettably inessential and autopilot driven DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES dubiously continues this downward qualitative trend. 

My CTV Review:

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