One of the many right moves that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales pulls off in order to steer this behemoth of a franchise in the right direction is to acknowledge that Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) works better as comedy relief than the absolute focal point of the narrative. Yes, Depp and his take on Sparrow is so vital to the series that the whole enterprise more than likely would not have gone past the first film without his cartoonish, playful antics. Curse of the Black Pearl would probably now be remembered as a quirky footnote from that weird time when Disney decided to adapt its theme park rides into movies for some reason. Remember what a successful and long-running franchise The Haunted Mansion movie turned out to be?
That said, a little of Depp’s unholy love child of Keith Richards, Buster Keaton and a drunken octopus goes a long way. He’s a one-joke character that admittedly tells that joke with unique style and bravado, but placing his abrasive nature in the middle of a bloated attempt at an expansive grand mythology the way Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End—the Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions of the franchise—did only resulted in blockbuster fatigue and shtick overload. In Dead Men Tell No Tales, a perfectly serviceable and fun adventure/fantasy in its own right, Sparrow is more of a side character who comes along for the ride, barely has an arc, and relinquishes the driving motivations of the plot to the main characters.
Sure, the antagonist kick starts the story with a fervent desire to hunt Jack down, and some of the plot machinations would not move forward without his presence, but he’s mostly there to liven up the party rather than the sole reason the party exists. Perhaps Disney felt confident about minimizing his role after Depp’s recent string of box-office flops and controversies from his personal life, but it turns out to be a bit of a gift to him, since the character can finally be fully enjoyed in his natural place in the franchise.
The fifth film in the series embodies a fairly superficial, yet breezy and well-executed pirate adventure/fantasy story, where a band of genre archetypes go after an all-powerful mythical thingamajig that has the power of controlling all of the … do you even care? If this screenplay was produced in the 1960s, it would have been mandatory for Ray Harryhausen to do the special effects. In the case of Dead Men Tell No Tales, the thingamajig is Poseidon’s trident, which gives the owner the ability to control the sea.
Handsome rapscallion Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) wants the trident to break a curse that keeps his father, Will (Orlando Bloom, whose seaweed-covered make-up makes it look like he’s preparing to star in a gritty reboot of Spongebob Squarepants), trapped in a ship under the sea. The smart and gorgeous Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) wants to find it to prove the validity of her father’s scientific research. Captain Barbarosa (the always reliably gruff and cranky Geoffrey Rush) wants it to, well, it’s not exactly clear. Because he’s a pirate and it’s his nature? He wants the power? He wants it for his collection? All of the above? In the midst of all this, Jack Sparrow has to come along in order protect himself from the wrath of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a ruthless ghost captain whose zombie crew is wreaking havoc across the sea in service of one goal: Kill Jack Sparrow.
Bardem creates an appropriately bombastic villain for the franchise with his deliciously scenery-chewing performance. Even though the motivation of the villain is simple, run-of-the-mill revenge, albeit told via an unnecessary flashback that turns into yet another uncanny valley nightmare de-aged Depp, the boyishly grotesque design of the zombie crew and their monster ship—complete with jaws that literally eat other ships—is a bit of a marvel to behold. The concept is that these men are cursed to continue living in the exact state they died in, resulting in them walking around with half a head, bones sticking out of stumps, some of them only consisting of a hand and a foot. Their visceral and in-your-face design really pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating. It’s too bad that this badass idea was used in a franchise targeted to kids and pre-teens; it could have been the basis of a terrific hard-R pirate/zombie/horror flick.
Dead Men Tell No Tales works mostly as a stand-alone adventure that doesn’t require the viewer to be familiar with Pirates canon. You can certainly watch the previous films to find out why Will Turner is stuck at the bottom of the sea, or how the Black Pearl ended up inside a tiny bottle, but they’re not requirements to understand the clear and simple motivations of the characters. Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn’t rewrite the rulebook for the franchise or the genre as a whole, and is wholly predictable from start to finish, but the likable characters—Thwaites and Scodelario have more natural presence and mutual chemistry than Bloom and Knightley—creative action set pieces, and Depp finally being put in his place in the franchise creates a fun ride that’s instantly forgettable. You know, like the ride itself.
Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Writer: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay); Jeff Nathanson, Terry Rossio (story by); Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert (based on characters created by)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Paul McCartney
Release Date: May 26, 2017
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.