Review: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’ is devoid of life

Johnny Depp stars in the newest “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment, “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” (Courtesy of Disney)

In 2003, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was a massive hit and became the first film in a billion-dollar franchise for Disney. Based on a popular ride at Disneyland, “Black Pearl” continues to be one of the most rewatchable blockbusters of the last 20 years. A large part of that appeal belongs to Johnny Depp, who earned an Oscar nomination and millions of adoring fans in his role as Captain Jack Sparrow. The first trio of “Pirates” films were largely oversaturated with subplots and characters, but Sparrow’s idiosyncratic behavior and personality won over audiences. He is the lifeblood of the franchise.

Disney put his crowd-pleasing ways to the test in 2011 when director Rob Marshall tried to reboot the series with “On Stranger Tides.” Reportedly one of the most expensive films ever made, it jettisoned a majority of the characters established in the original trilogy in favor of a Sparrow-focused storyline. The result was a humorless, boring disaster, and the whole exercise screamed “cash grab.” 

Enter “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” an unwanted and equally dull sequel that incites more groans than excitement. Five years after “Tides,” Disney is clearly trying to right that film’s wrongs, pairing Sparrow with a mix of new and recognizable characters in an attempt to inject life into the plot and seemingly prepare for a new series of films. If only it produced positive results. With a head-scratching-at-best story, a series of new, tacked-on characters and shameless attempts to cash in on nostalgia, the “Pirates” franchise has never felt less necessary or more devoid of life.

Watch the trailer for “Dead Men Tell No Tales” below: 

The problems are evident from the opening scene and only continue as the plot develops. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of former protagonist Will (Orlando Bloom) is desperate to break the curse that holds his father bound to the Flying Dutchman. His travels bring him in contact with the devilish Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spanish pirate hunter with a deep-seated hate for Jack Sparrow. Barely escaping the encounter, Henry eventually finds Sparrow imprisoned in a British colony after a destructive bank robbery attempt. The two team up with a young astronomer named Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) to track down Poseidon’s trident, using the stars as their map. Meanwhile, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) tries to cut a deal with Salazar to track down Sparrow.

Fans of the other “Pirates” films will be reasonably entertained. “Dead Men Tell No Tales” delivers fine swashbuckling action. But compared to even “On Stranger Tides,” the fun factor is severely limited. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has ditched any footing in reality in favor of a bland and fruitless mythology.

If only Depp, who exhibited such wonderful charm and personality when he first became Jack Sparrow, could still carry the franchise. Depp has worn the character all too thin. Once a hero with dramatic depth and a strange sense of honor, “Tales” reduces him to a role better reserved for a jester or clown. Scenes with no pace or action often rely on his charm to keep the audience interested, but jokes consistently fall flat. This Sparrow becomes an annoyance by the two-hour mark.

One would hope that the other characters could save the film from awfulness. But both Henry and Carina have little to no personality and merely fill in roles once occupied by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. To that end, both Bloom and Knightley appear onscreen for a grand total of maybe five minutes, making it easy to question their inclusion in the first place. Rush, clearly having too much fun, turns in a hammy, laughable performance.

To mention the directors of this film is to suggest it has any artful qualities. It does not. To suggest otherwise is an insult to better movies. “Dead Men Tell No Tales” uses nostalgia as a weapon against moviegoers’ wallets, hoping to mask its quality with the memories of a blockbuster long past its prime.

If there was treasure to be found in this franchise, it’s already been plundered.

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