As far as swashbuckling adventures on the high seas go, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – what a mouthful – is running on stagnant tides. It’s amazing to think a film series based off of an amusement park ride would get to its fifth entry in the first place, a much wilder notion being that that fifth time out of the gate may actually offer up something new and inventive. That isn’t to be the case, though, and this latest outing featuring the eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow, still played by Johnny Depp and all of his crazy mannerisms, offers nothing special beyond the typical excitement to which we’ve been privy many times before. Dead Men Tell No Tales attempts to reenergize the Pirates franchise with fresh blood and a younger cast, but, without any creativity to back it up, it all ends up treading the same blockbuster waters.
That younger cast includes newcomer Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner, the young son of Will and Elizabeth Turner (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, respectively), the adventurers who found love in the Caribbean during the original, Pirates trilogy. From an early age, Henry is well aware of his father’s cursed station on board the Flying Dutchman, and the boy’s one desire in life is to break his father’s curse so their family can lead a happy, normal existence outside the bonds of the sea.
Naturally, Henry’s quest leads him on the path of noted pirate, Jack Sparrow, and the two join forces in search of a legendary artifact, the Trident of Poseidon, an item believed to give the owner control over all the various curses of the ocean. Also along for the ride is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who may be the only one who can find the mystic item, but, as with any good, pirate adventure, their quest isn’t bound to go as smoothly as first perceived. Hot on their trail is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead pirate hunter whose crew was trapped long ago in the Devil’s Triangle and who believes Sparrow’s compass holds the key to his own salvation. With Salazar’s crew, the British Royal Navy, and even the Queen Anne’s Revenge captained by Sparrow’s longtime nemesis, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), in pursuit, the trio of seafaring adventurers soon find themselves in a race against time to unlock the ocean’s deepest secrets.
Written by series newcomer Jeff Nathanson and directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the duo who gave us the adventure film Kon-Tiki, Dead Men Tell No Tales makes a much more successful attempt than the last outing at invigorating a series whose success was a surprise from the outset. The 2003 original, The Curse of the Black Pearl, shocked critics and audiences alike with its effective storytelling and quirky slate of characters to say nothing of the blockbuster excitement. That original trilogy ran its natural course, but that wasn’t stopping the fine folks at Disney from going back to the well time and time again, the last of which, On Stranger Tides, offered nothing but dull action and a completely forgettable narrative.
Dead Men Tell No Tales has nothing in the way of excitement that would match the surprise of that original outing, but its energetic pacing and semi-exciting set pieces are enough to make it a much more worthy effort than the previous entry. A sequence involving zombified sharks is a nice touch, though it does hit and disappear all too quickly. Still, the sense that the bloom is off the rose with this series cannot be escaped. The action is finely tuned thanks to the quality effort by its directing duo, but much of it is standard, Pirates of the Caribbean fare. That’s saying nothing of Sparrow, himself, the face of this franchise whose eccentric ticks and over-the-top antics are still running at the same level they’ve always been.
It doesn’t help that Depp, still channeling rock stars of old, appears bored underneath the captain’s hat and pirate flair that make up the character’s grungy exterior. His eyes bulge and dart around as previously seen, and he delivers on the same mannerisms that made the character so memorable in the first place (and also garnered Depp an Academy Award nomination back in 2004). There isn’t enough new about the character this time around, though, and, save for a brief flashback that depicts how Captain Jack Sparrow initially made his name, it’s a completely forgettable performance this time around.
Elsewhere in the cast, Thwaites and Scodelario each make a commendable effort in giving their respective character freshness the rest of the film seems lacking. Scodelario in particular offers up a rare level of energy in the film, and she becomes the most memorable aspect here. Bardem and Rush each do a fine job hamming it up with their respective levels of villainy, Bardem especially. Under loads of makeup and a large helping of computer effects, his Captain Salazar isn’t anything groundbreaking to the Pirates of the Caribbean universe. His performance, however, is somewhat more exciting and makes every instance he’s on screen that much more watchable.
It’s a shame, though, that that level of excitement is rarely found elsewhere in Dead Men Tell No Tales. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has rested its laurels on quirky characters being dropped into wild, oceanic adventures, and, for that prerequisite, this fifth outing delivers. It isn’t enough, though, to keep spirits high for the continuing adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow et al. If this franchise is to continue, it needs a readjustment from the standard we’ve been given, especially when it comes to Depp’s character and performance. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t a complete wash for the franchise, but it’s a definite indicator this series needs to take a new, more exciting course if it is to carry on much longer.