Movie Review: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham
Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” fails to get the 14-year-old series back on track. While it is an improvement over the previous sequel, “On Stranger Tides,” directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg succumb to many of the same problems found in that film. For starters, the character of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is no longer the charming antihero he once was – straddling the line between good and evil – but rather a drunken pirate who wanders aimlessly through set pieces.

Unlike Gore Verbinski’s massive sequels, the action sequences aren’t enough to cut it here. They’re surprisingly infrequent over the course of Sparrow’s search for the legendary Trident of Poseidon. Although screenwriter Jeff Nathanson attempts to return the franchise to the simplicity of the first movie, it lacks the same energy, and that’s a problem that begins and ends with Jack Sparrow, a character who had something driving him in the 2003 original. He used to have a personal motivation and real conflicts, but now he just drinks a lot, keeps making the same old jokes and finds his way out of sticky situations just as you’d expect him to. He’s lost his unpredictability.

This time he’s on the run from Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a performance and visual effect that’s never quite convincing. In his younger years, Jack Sparrow helped turn the pirate killer and his crew into ghosts, and now that Salazar has escaped the Devil’s Triangle where he was imprisoned, he goes hunting for the man who not only damned him but is the only one who can save him. Nobody knows where Sparrow is, including Will Turner’s son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) and an astronomer accused of witchcraft named Carina (Kaya Scodelario). Sadly, Henry and Carina aren’t particularly lively additions to the cast, as they pale in comparison to the colorful supporting characters this series once featured, such as Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush). Sparrow’s old foe is still present and has a strong payoff here, but it’s not enough to bring much heart and soul to the movie.

In the original trilogy, Jack Sparrow had a proper arc where he actually evolved as a character, but he’s lost that magic in the years (and films) since. When Depp first appeared as the infamous pirate, there was a real magnetism about him that kept your focus on Sparrow. Now, it feels like there’s no other place for the character to go. In “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” even Sparrow’s sense of humor is on the decline. The jokes, especially the ones between Depp and Thwaites, are rough. There’s no chemistry among any of the characters, except maybe for Sparrow’s crew. The great Stephen Graham, thankfully, gets a moment or two to shine, including some of the film’s biggest laughs.

As talented as Javier Bardem is, however, he’s undermined by the character’s visual effect. It’s impossible to look past and is a distraction every time Salazar appears. His motivation and personality are completely masked by the character’s design, which feels like a less appealing redux of what we saw in “Curse of the Black Pearl” with the moonlight skeletons.

The first movie’s sense of adventure and wonder is long gone in this latest installment, which moves with little momentum and urgency. Despite being almost 40 minutes shorter than “At World’s End,” it feels twice as long. Even the action doesn’t help to pick up the pace, as it lacks the grandness and imagination found in the original trilogy. All things considered, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is an all-around underwhelming experience.