Near the end of the film’s first act, Jack Sparrow is once again sentenced to death by the men in red coats, forced to choose between hanging, firing squad, or the newly invented guillotine. It was at this point that I struggled to determine which of these ends I would have this franchise meet once and for all. As cruel as that sounds, I am a bit disheartened to even think it, because up until the franchise’s fourth entry (“On Stranger Tides”), I championed the swashbuckling adventures of Jack Spar- sorry... Captain Jack Sparrow. As the fifth(?!) installment, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” had every chance to make up for what was lacking previously; to either restore the Disney brand to its former glory or to set sail for uncharted territory. Sadly, it does neither, settling for an extremely hollow retread of what worked in Gore Verbinski’s original trilogy. If you are hoping for an improvement over the last one, save your doubloons for another cinematic adventure.
Nearly twenty years have passed since Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) left his family to serve as captain of the Flying Dutchman. Now his son Henry (Brendon Thwaites) seeks to break his father’s curse by finding the legendary Trident of Poseidon. In his search, he meets Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an ambitious young woman convicted of witchcraft due to her expertise in astrology and horology, who claims she knows where to find the Trident. The two coincidentally run into Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and enlist his help in their journey. Meanwhile in the Devil’s Triangle, a crew of undead Spanish sailors, led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), seeks vengeance on Sparrow and the death of every pirate at sea. In his ruthless quest, Salazar forcibly recruits Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to help him track down his enemy.
As with every other “Pirates” sequel, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” juggles far too many subplots, but unlike Verbinski’s films, the threads here spoil any sense of narrative coherence, mostly due to rushed pacing as a means to forgo a lengthy runtime. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg mistake this for maintaining excitement, leaving the characters very little room to breathe in between the increasingly ludicrous action sequences (the first of which should cause viewers to mentally check out of the rest of the film). Oddly enough, the shortest film in the series quickly becomes the most tiresome, fueled by annoyingly cartoonish sensibilities and undercut by a total lack of urgency.
“Dead Men Tell No Tales” also attempts to regain audience approval by revisiting characters and elements that made the first three films a huge success. This approach is sloppily handled by the creative team, the worst casualty being Jeff Nathanson’s atrocious script. Next to that is the seriously mishandled use of Depp’s iconic role. Once a rum-loving schemer who was always one step ahead of others, Sparrow is reduced to a bumbling, flailing parody of himself, always shouting and quipping his way through the action without consequence or development. Depp does what he can with the material, but it’s unfortunate to watch him take the character to an embarrassing new low. None of his co-stars seem to be having much fun either. Thwaites and Scodelario bore as the de facto young couple, while Bardem surprisingly fails to bring the right amount of menace to Salazar. Rush adds little variation to Barbossa, but he is easily the most watchable of the ensemble.
Some fans might prefer this film to the weak diversion that “On Stranger Tides” took, but at least it tried to give us something the franchise had not yet seen, namely the shifty romance between Sparrow and Penélope Cruz’s character. At least then, Depp had much more to do than he does here, and the film promised so much more than this one. All of that is abandoned for a frustratingly safe installment in the now-dismal blockbuster series. Either the sixth film (if it happens) give audiences a satisfying send-off, or the franchise finally walk the plank. This is one of the worst films of the year.