One thing I enjoy about long running franchises is being able to pick at and discover what works and what doesn’t in regard to each installment, and the series as a whole. For some franchises, like Alien, James Bond, and Mission: Impossible, this typically involves seeing what a new director brings to each new entry, as the formula is flexible enough to allow for experimentation. Others, like Pirates of the Caribbean, it is finding the balance between adding new elements and characters while keeping what the creators and studios think audiences loved about previous installments.
And so Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales largely represents a course correction for the series. Although Penélope Cruz brought something interesting to the previous film, On Stranger Tides, putting Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the role of protagonist was an ill fit. So this installment takes a back-to-basics approach, doing so by connecting more directly to the first three films and reducing the plot complexity. It mostly succeeds in those endeavors, but a sleepy Johnny Depp performance and a middling finale still leaves the whole thing lacking compared to the original.
The main character this time out is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley’s characters from the earlier entries. Aspiring to free his father from the curse of The Flying Dutchman, he becomes obsessed with sea legends and pirate lore, which does not help his career in the Royal Navy, and so he ends up in jail. He also encounters Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer, imprisoned for witchcraft. She is searching for the Trident of Poseidon, which grants total control over the sea, including the power to break all ocean-related curses, like the one affecting Orlando Bloom. Joining their ranks as prisoner is Jack Sparrow. In one of the film’s best scenes, a rescue ensues, and the trio are off to find the Trident.
Complicating matters is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a former Spanish pirate hunter, now undead with his ghostly crew and on a revenge mission against Jack. Bardem, sadly to say, is giving a performance similar to his character in Skyfall, and it just doesn’t quite land the right way in this film. While his character in the Bond film was both menacing and seductive, Salazar’s simple need for revenge and his hatred for pirates means that Bardem’s affections don’t have anything to add to the character. Luckily, series’ constant Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) returns, and brings all of the charisma lacking elsewhere in the film. The character has had an interesting track over the course of these films, and his introduction here is a highlight.
This being billed as the final installment, the film does put a bow on several of these long-running storylines, but also leaves plenty open ended should the treasure Disney earns from this entry warrant another outing. One of the main characters is literally sailing toward the horizon at the end of the film, and there is even a post-credits scene that teases the return of a major character (people blame Marvel for this trend, but these films have been doing them since 2003). For a film series that easily could have gone down the road of having largely standalone installments, the continued mythology continues to be one of its strengths rather than a weakness.
But more importantly, directors Joachim Running and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) seem to be having fun making a Pirates movie. There are two scenes early in the film that are excellent examples of action comedy, and though they don’t surpass any of Verbinski’s madcap work, the effort of evoking Buster Keaton pays off. Unfortunately, that spark isn’t quite present in any of the sequences toward the end of the film, even if those sequences do contain some great imagery.
The biggest problem with the film is that Depp is subdued here. Being back in a supporting role (at least in terms of narrative, if not screen time), should allow him free reign to go bigger with his performance. Instead, Jack seems to spend most of the film in a drunken stupor rather than the lively element of chaos he embodies in earlier films. It doesn’t help that Thwaites is possibly less flavored than Orlando Bloom, but Scodelario shines. Oddly, this is a series that mostly gets its female leads right, if only because it can effectively use its male characters’ antiquated views on gender as a foil for these women. If the series is to continue, it would be more than fitting to have her as the lead character.
Dead Men Tell No Tales has enough of the series’ strengths to be a worthy sequel, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of previous entries.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.