No tale at all would have been an improvement on this exhaustively bland one.
There are exactly two good and funny gags in the fifth entry of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. As is the pattern of these films the bits are dragged out a little too long, but for a few brief seconds each, they serve as reminders of the visual wit and energy that pervades Gore Verbinski’s 2003 original. It’s been a series of diminishing returns ever since with the latest film sinking even further into the depths of mind-numbing boredom.
We open on a determined boy at sea who dives deep into the ocean towards a particular shipwreck. Once aboard the rotted and crumbling deck, the water drains away and a shambling figure appears. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), his face and body showing the ravages of death and undersea nibblings, tells his son to go home, but the boy instead promises that he won’t rest until he ends the curse that holds his father beneath the waves.
Some years later the now older Henry (Brenton Thwaites) appears no closer to completing his promise, but a chance meeting with two wildly differing personalities puts him back on track. A ship he’s working on is attacked by ghostly pirates, and the undead Capt. Salazar (Javier Bardem) spares his life so that he may tell the tale. (Someone has to, and dead men can’t… it’s right there in the title.) The crack-faced demon also tells him to find Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and warn him of the coming reckoning. Henry then crosses paths with a saucy horologist, Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who holds the key in the form of a map to finding an undiscovered island and the Trident of Poseidon which promises to break all the curses of the sea. Henry and Carina join forces with Jack, Salazar ropes Capt. Hector Barborossa (Geoffrey Rush) into taking his side and the race is on.
And on. And on. And on.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a big, loud slog that fails to muster the energy necessary to carry it across its 129-minute running time. (But hey, at least it’s the shortest film in the series.)
The film’s problems are legion and insurmountable for directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (both of the far superior sea-set epic, Kon-Tiki), but in the interest of positivity let’s begin with what works. There are two sequences that tease a vitality and creativity sorely missing elsewhere. First up is a bank robbery that goes awry in somewhat comical fashion with the highlight being a safe-dragging sequence straight out of Fast Five. It’s a funny period-piece recreation of that film’s epic scene, and while it drags on a bit too long (pun probably intended) it allows for some fun beats and large-scale destruction. The second of the film’s highlights comes shortly after Jack is strapped into the guillotine in preparation for his execution. His crew set off a rescue attempt, and amid the chaos, the guillotine’s sharp blade repeatedly threatens to lop off his head. It’s a lively blend of momentum, gravity, and physical comedy.
And that’s pretty much it for the positives.
The CG is fine of course, albeit less than memorable, but there’s so very little that pops here. The vast majority of the action occurs at night with everything bathed in the artificiality of blue moonlight, and while the goal was most likely to shield some of the effects from scrutiny the effect is a bland sameness to too many of the scenes. There’s little distinguish one moment from the next, one ship to the next, etc, and a Moses-like parting of the sea aside the sea-based antics blend together into a dull, ultramarine-tinted stew of sameness.
The cast fares even worse. Supporting players do competent work, but four of the five leads do more damage than anything else here. Depp is doing his late-career Depp shtick, Bardem is trying desperately to ham it up from behind prosthetics to little effect, and our supposed romantic leads exude not even an ounce of chemistry between them. Had the film revealed they were, in fact, brother and sister audiences would say “sure” and move on, but the effort expended to instead make them into a new Will Turner & Elizabeth Swann is wasted on flat performances and even flatter dialogue.
Writer Jeff Nathanson — whose filmography runs the gamut from Catch Me If You Can to Rush Hour 3, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Tower Heist — seems content hanging the film on daddy issues and an insanely simple quest. Seriously, the secret to finding the mysterious island comes down to simply sailing in a general direction. Audiences would be well-advised to point themselves in a different direction altogether when they head to the theater.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a noisy, forgettable summer ride lacking spectacle, personality, or purpose. Well, purpose aside from making big bank at the box-office anyway.