PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Adventure Violence, and some Suggestive Content

Directed by: Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg

Written by: Jeff Nathanson

Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham & Orlando Bloom

In theory, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series never should have worked. It’s based on a theme park ride and had a goofy premise from the start, with Johnny Depp putting in a shamelessly over-the-top performance that baffled studio heads. However, 2003’s CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL was a huge hit amongst both critics and audiences. I consider that film to be a glowing example of big budget summer entertainment done right. DEAD MAN’S CHEST was an okay sequel, while AT WORLD’S END was a tired slog to sit through. ON STRANGER TIDES was a marginally better fourth entry that attempted to steer this swashbuckling series back into Captain Jack’s fantastical ocean adventures. How does the fifth(!) installment in this long-running theme-park-based franchise fare? Well, let’s just say that I enjoyed almost every other PIRATES film more than DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of the Flying Dutchman’s captain Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), is desperate to break the curse that holds his father to the sea. To do this, he needs to find Poseidon’s legendary trident…and for that, he’ll need the help of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Henry and Jack get off to a rocky start, as they’re accompanied by intellectual Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) and her ability to read a map in the stars. Their journey only gets rockier as the Jack’s crew encounters Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), evil British Lieutenant Scarfield (David Wenham), and ghostly Spaniard Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). The only hope for breaking Will’s curse and saving Jack’s life is to find/steal the fabled trident!

DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, much like the series’ previous installment ON STRANGER TIES, clearly has Disney trying to steer this pirate franchise in new directions. This time, they’re aiming to bring in a new generation of moviegoers by having two fresh-faced, younger characters as leads. Henry Turner and Carina Smyth are clearly supposed to be hipper, younger stand-ins for Orlando Bloom’s hero and Keira Knightley’s heroine from the original trilogy. Unfortunately, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are poor substitutes in acting ability, on-screen charisma, and character development.

In his fifth outing as Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp gets a fair amount of laughs and also grates on the viewer’s nerves in equal measure. I thought Depp was easily the best part of the first two PIRATE movies, but he’s slowly become more and more of a cartoon character as the films have gone on. The same can be said of DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, which sees Captain Jack jumping from cannon to cannon in a ship battle and making plenty of goofy faces. His best scene easily involves a guillotine though and this got plenty of laughs out of myself (and everyone else in the theater). Geoffrey Rush fares much better as the returning Barbossa, while Orlando Bloom has a glorified cameo.

As two new antagonists in the series, David Wenham and Javier Bardem are on opposite ends of the villain totem-pole. Wenham (though a more than capable actor) isn’t given much to do as the evil British Lieutenant and his entire subplot wraps up in the most anti-climactic way possible (even worse than the giant witch from the third movie). Javier Bardem serves as a solid baddie though. I loved the look of his villain and the murderous grudge he holds against Sparrow. More screen time should have been dedicated to the conflict between Depp’s Sparrow and Bardem’s Salazar as opposed to far too many subplots that invasively take away from the film’s more interesting plot points.

As far as spectacle goes, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES has its fair share of entertaining bits and cool moments. There’s an opening bank robbery that recaptures the humor that made the first two installments so enjoyable and, of course, there’s effects-driven chaos that one would expect to see in a PIRATES movie. Most of the film’s awesomeness involves Bardem’s ghostly villain and his strange powers, including using decaying sharks as creative weapons. The special effects look great, though you’d expect them to be that…with a price tag of over 200 million dollars. However, the finale is where things become a little too eye-rollingly silly in the plot’s over-the-top, anything-goes nature. I was not having nearly as much fun as I should have been, especially considering that the film goes for a “kitchen sink” approach in its final third.

DEAD MEN’s script is where most of this film’s many problems lie. The beyond convoluted plot feels like it’s trying to cram entirely too much into one movie. We have loads of new characters, meaning that our main ones of importance wind up underdeveloped and forgettable. Certain story arcs come right the hell out of nowhere with little rhyme, reason, or emotional resonance. One twist feels like a last-minute thought and becomes useless in the overall scheme of things. Meanwhile, a few subplots are completely pointless…like the British villain who goes nowhere and (again) has an infuriatingly stupid final scene.

DEAD MEN is only marginally better than AT WORLD’S END and falls far lower than the second and fourth installments. If the stinger after the end credits is any indication, we’ll likely be getting an unnecessary sixth film in the franchise…because why not render an ending that seemed to wrap up the entire series as pointless in the space of five minutes? There are a handful of great moments in DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES and I really enjoyed Bardem’s undead villain, but the film suffers from too many unfocused subplots, lazy writing, and two bland leads. As a result, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is the second-worst PIRATES movie and lackluster attempt at summer blockbuster entertainment.

Grade: C-

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