**1/2 out of ****
(for sequences of adventure violence, language, and some suggestive content)
Released: May 26, 2017
Runtime: 129 minutes
Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin R. McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham
Five movies in, this latest Pirates adventure isn’t the best thing in the world…but it’s not the worst thing in the world either.
More pointedly, for as worn as much of this is, Dead Men Tell No Tales is still more fun and, yes, fresh than the second obnoxious volume in the Guardians galaxy.
Okay, “fresh” might be pushing it. It’s been six years since the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie and a full decade since one that fans enjoyed, so franchise fatigue still outweighs nostalgia in Dead Men Tell No Tales. Yet despite stretches of episodic plotting where the movie feels like it’s spinning its wheels, and low sitcom humor that’s lacking a laugh track, this apparent cash-grab one-off is still exuberant and well-crafted enough to make for an entertaining disposal of two hours, if not entirely justifying its existence.
Never having been a huge fan of the series, I barely remember the first three entries and skipped the fourth entirely but, if you’re like me, Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn’t leave you feeling lost, giving you enough backstory to make sense of this story. Plus, with the full feature formatted to IMAX’s scale, it’s bigger than ever for those who pay extra for the large screen format.
The prologue, set nearly ten years prior to the main story’s events, establishes the movie’s premise: Henry Turner, son of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, sets out on a mission to find the Trident of Poseidon. This mythical three-pronged scepter is fabled to hold the power to break a curse that Will Turner is under, along with granting the person who possesses the Trident total control over the seas.
Now as a young man, Henry seeks out Captain Jack Sparrow to help him in his quest. Even as the movie meanders through various set pieces of blockbuster busyness, that narrative hook keeps everything tied together.
The primary obstacle in their path: Jack’s oldest, first nemesis Captain Salazar, played with scenery-chewing relish by Javier Bardem. His dead remains have been resurrected and unleashed, along with his crew’s, thanks to a careless unwitting act by Sparrow.
Their backstory is also shown, giving Disney yet another opportunity to show how they’ve perfected de-aging visual effects; the look of 21 Jump Street era Johnny Depp is flawless. With that as context, a collision course of vengeance is set, and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa (who’s still game for wherever adventure may take him) weaves himself into the mix as well.
Gone are Bloom and Keira Knightley as the requisite romantic leads, and in their places are Brenton Thwaites as Will’s son Henry and Kaya Scodelario as the spirited, independently minded Carina. Doing more than simply filling stock roles, Thwaites and Scodelario give the film much of its spunk and spirit while still imbuing their young characters with credible intellects.
Carina’s traits as a butt-kicking science lover may be a bit too anachronistic and forced, somewhat pandering to our progressive times, but given how “damsels” have often lacked agency it’s a forgivable over-correct. Scodelario is assured in the role, as is Thwaites in his; both are much more than pretty faces, strong enough to carry the film if it had been required of them.
Depp’s drunken shtick as Captain Jack is routine at this point, and for some (like me) it’ll wear thin, but for others who find its charm to be like a familiar warm blanket of absurdity, Depp keeps the persona cranked up, never satisfied to just go through the motions. For each viewer, mileage will vary.
Some action sequences work better than others. Jack’s first comical foray, involving a building being towed at high speed through the streets of a village, could’ve worked as a Buster Keaton homage in the hands of more ambitious filmmakers, but it gets the job done, as do most that follow, even if barely.
Thankfully, Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg save their best ideas for last. The climactic, inventive sea-set sequence is truly spectacular, the kind that summer moviegoers fork over their money for. It’s also capped with a surprisingly effective poignancy.
The collective whole may still feel a bit long in the tooth, and this likely won’t inspire a new set of sequels as perhaps Disney secretly hopes (despite the “Final Adventure” marketing tagline), but with high comic energy and a lively cast – all buoyed by the brash bombast of this saga’s iconic main theme – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a rousing slice of multiplex comfort food.