Directors: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
Notable Cast: Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Paul McCartney
Also Known As: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge
To give a bit of context to this review, my opinion of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is far from a positive one. Like most people, I was massively surprised by the quality of the first, but the second and third entries left me cold and/or irritated by the sheer and immense spectacle driven focus that they had quickly succumbed to. However, with dire expectations in hand, the fourth film was surprisingly fun. It stripped away a ton of the melodramatic set pieces for a much more efficient (and for some, boring) summer blockbuster formula that left me pleasantly surprised. That is not, however, a statement of On Stranger Tides’ quality as it certainly was not a film to challenge its viewers or was even executed in any kind of artistic fashion. It accepted itself for all its silliness and delivered a fun standalone feature.
This now brings us to the focus of this review, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, a somewhat hilarious title considering that at least half of its main returning characters have been dead or dead-like for at least some portion of this franchise. As the fifth entry into this franchise, it was mildly touted as a finale that would wrap up some threads left hanging while maintaining the classic concepts and even ‘returning to its roots’ to fix some of the issues that fans had with the fourth entry. True to its promises, it kind of does all of those things. Kind of. And it still delivers a fun summer kick off blockbuster that fans will find enjoyable enough. Truthfully though, Dead Men Tell No Tales is something of a mess narratively speaking, sticking to the formula with almost vicious intent and failing to really add anything truly inspired or new, but not quite sinking to the depths of poorly crafted storytelling that the second and third entry hit. To put it simply, it’s a lot of the same old, same old. For better or worse.
Henry Turner (Twaites) is on a mission to break his father’s (Bloom) curse. To do that though, he needs Posiden’s Trident and the only two people that can help him find it are a young scholarly and feisty woman (Scodelario) about to be hung and an inept pirate Jack Sparrow (Depp). However, Sparrow has unwittingly unleashed a new terror on the seas known as Salazar (Bardem), a pirate killer he lead to hell as a youth, and now all three will have to balance the rights and wrongs of their mission to uncover just what and where the Trident is.
The first aspect that one will quickly realize is that Dead Men Tell No Tales is a tad bit obsessed with trying to re-discover the roots of what made the franchise popular to begin with while maintaining the same ridiculous spectacle fans have come to expect from the latter sequels. At times, the film can handle both, but often enough it creates a film that can feel both dragging in its narrative while at the same time feeling overzealously overstuffed with random shit. This is problematic for various reasons, but the biggest is that it feels unfocused and messy. Entire sections could be trimmed and edited massively for the sake of pacing, but remain entertaining enough to add charm to be part of the reason why fans continually see these films. Adding in two new young characters, obvious attempts are recapturing the youthful whimsy and dramatic romantic undertones of Bloom and Knightley from the original, make for some fun moments as they discover the horrors and oddities of the supernatural elements that seemingly haunt Sparrow, but ultimately it seems tired and repetitive even for this franchise. Both Thwaites and Scodelario give the film their all and come off charming enough, but the idea of trying to recreate the original’s approach doesn’t work nearly as well here to add to the narrative.
From there, the film attempts to continue on its merry way by including other aspects that fans come to expect. Front row and center is Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. Depp has not had the best of luck with Box Office numbers since the fourth entry of this series (and more than likely won’t after this one either), but he slips right back into the quirky boots and dreads of the character nicely. Fortunately, the Pirates films have always been powered by amazing casts and fun characters and Dead Men Tell No Tales is no different. Rush returns (as perhaps my favorite reoccurring character of this franchise) in the role of Barbarossa, whose character is given a strange amount of weight by the third act of the film, and Bardem steals the show just by saying ‘Sparrow’ and lumbering around dripping black blood from his lips. Fans will recognize a few familiar faces (some surprises are in store for fans too) and for the most part the heart of the franchise remains its cast and characters, all of which are seemingly game for the outrageousness in store for them.
This brings up the rather interesting aspect of the spectacle of this film. While the idea of having Poseidon’s Trident as the key to unlocking any curse of the sea, the film doesn’t nearly feel as world ending as it might have considering its “finale” focus and concept. Sure, it’s still a tad overwhelming in its silliness that seemingly develops more plot holes than anything else, but it is entertaining in a much more pulled back and smaller tone which I have to give it credit for. Ghost sharks, giant wooden living ship monsters, and a fantastic opening heist that pulls a few great moments from the Fast and Furious franchise make sure that even while the relentlessly quippy banter may get boring, it never shies away from just throwing a bunch of shit at the audience. Directors Ronning and Sandberg (Oscar famous directors of Kon Tiki) don’t quite have a knack of blockbuster direction down and botch a few things – including most of the night sequences which are much too dark and hinders some of the fun to be had in a fantastic two-ship cannon jumping chase sequence – but they hold their own visually to make things appealing.
All in all, while Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is patchy at best and boring at worst, this fifth entry into the long running franchise is far from the worst and far from the best. Middle of the road, perhaps sitting in the doldrums, is where this one resides. It’s fun, when one boils it down, and features a lot of silly sequences to appease its family friendly adventure film loving fanbase, but it’s hardly a good film. It’s sporadic and messy in its narrative, tries to add in formulaic elements from previous entries, and relies too much on charm to sell itself. Fans will continue to enjoy it for what it is, but for this skeptical franchise whore Dead Men Tell No Tales is not necessarily a tale worth telling.
Perhaps Jack Sparrow and company will set sail for different shores with the next one, if there is a next one, and pull away from just being a lot of larger than life CGI with jokes thrown in for entertainment’s sake. One can hope, but it’s doubtful.
Written By Matt Reifschneider