In 2003, Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean became an overnight sensation with its first entry The Curse of the Black Pearl. Much of this was due to Johnny Depp’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of the bumbling-yet-clever Captain Jack Sparrow. 2006 and 2007’s sequels were even more successful, but were accused of being too bloated. Despite the central story line being wrapped up, 2011 saw Sparrow return in On Stranger Tides, which put him truly front and center, and the results were not pretty. Six years later, we’re back in this world again with Dead Men Tell No Tales, and new co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have attempted to bring the series back to what made it so successful in the first place. The outcome is enjoyable, but, once again, nothing special.
Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is a young sailor who hopes to one day find the Trident of Poseidon, which can rid the ocean of all curses, so that he can free his father, Will (Orlando Bloom, returning from the original trilogy). He recruits the help of Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), Will’s old friend and a renowned pirate currently in a rut; and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an ahead-of-her-time astronomer who thinks she can read the map to the Trident in the stars. However, their journey is complicated by Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spanish sailor who seeks revenge on Jack for getting him and his crew stuck for decades in the Bermuda Triangle.
As previously mentioned, Depp as Sparrow was once the strongest part of this series. His combination of superior wit and sheer and utter luck always made for an entertaining diversion from the complex plot around him, making him an invaluable support character. On Stranger Tides proved that the word “support” was crucial, but now they’ve pulled a complete 180 and you’ll almost wish he was front and center again. Sparrow is present throughout most of the film, but he doesn’t really do anything. There are absolutely some funny set pieces involving him, but he really has no business being with the new duo and his presence actually makes them a target for Salazar. His cleverness is gone, and, rather than seeming like he might actually be one step ahead of everyone under all the insanity, every move he makes is detrimental to the heroes. The movie just doesn’t need him.
It really wouldn’t be much better without him, though. Thwaites and Scodelario are decent with their performances, but their characters just aren’t that interesting. The script does give them backgrounds, and Carina is a great female role model, but their personalities are just boring and not very pleasant. Both characters are annoyingly stubborn, and their decisions as based on what would be the most interesting for the plot. But even more frustrating is the incredibly forced romance between them. The two have absolutely no chemistry and are completely different in every aspect beyond not knowing their fathers, but the plot seems to think they should flirt and eventually become a couple.
Other than those two big weak spots, it’s actually a pretty entertaining film. The biggest highlight is Bardem as Captain Salazar. Salazar is an incredibly entertaining on-screen presence, and Bardem absolutely gives it his all for a wonderfully over-the-top performance. A lot of scenes involving the character are unfortunately backstory heavy, but he thankfully has a pretty interesting backstory, and the main flashback scene is one of the best in the movie. He’s also just mesmerizing to look at. Salazar’s curse has Bardem caked in makeup, and his hair is constantly waving as if he were perpetually underwater. It’s a really cool touch, and the makeup artists definitely deserve some awards love. Geoffrey Rush is also back in his role as Sparrow’s frenemy Captain Barbossa, whose allegiance is once again a mystery. The character remains one of the series’ most entertaining, and Rush is just as hammy as we’ve come to expect. And despite his character’s poor writing this time around, Depp is still great in his signature role.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is one of the most expensive films of all time, and it shows. The sets are wonderful, the effects are jaw dropping, and set pieces are consistently strong. All the prettiness can’t really hide the blandness underneath though. The action is exciting and a good portion of the humor hits, but the plot is once again a convoluted mess. The Trident of Poseidon is such a laughable McGuffin, and the overall plot arc is just a reboot of The Curse of the Black Pearl, this time on autopilot because Rønning and Sandberg just aren’t as strong as Verbinski. It’s flashy, it’s funny, it’s well-acted, it fixes some of the problems of the last film, and the Will Turner cameo will fuel nostalgia, but Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales winds up being another empty shell in the end.