Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Walt Disney Pictures, PG-13)

Off-kilter can be charming, but the main problem with this film is that its central draw is not the likable pirate that he once was.

Remember when Captain Jack Sparrow was the most charming fool in cinema, able to seem like a drunk but could cleverly work his way out of any situation? Well, he is nowhere to be found during this sluggish fifth entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales sees the return of the dim-witted pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who is spending his time drinking away and robbing banks, much to the chagrin of his crew. His paths cross with Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites)—the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley)—and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a young and brilliant astronomer, which gets her labeled a witch. Both are on the hunt for the Trident of Poseidon, which gives its wielder control of the sea. Henry wants to use the trident to free his father from his forced servitude as the captain of the Flying Dutchman, while Carina wants to find it to prove herself and to unravel the mystery of her unknown father. Jack is just along for the ride. While on the hunt, they are pursued by the undead ship captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew, with the unwilling aid of Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Jack’s longtime rival. Salazar has it out for Jack because of a past incident, and pirate-kind in general. Now free, Salazar’s return brings dangers to the sea and all pirate life.

At their best, the Pirates films were reminiscent of old-fashioned swashbuckling epics, not afraid of their own zaniness and delivering on the spectacle. Some are better than others, but what was consistent was that Johnny Depp used his off-kilter acting to great effect in a performance that invaded the pop-culture sphere. Off-kilter can be charming, but the main problem with this film is that its central draw is not the likable pirate that he once was. In this film, Jack Sparrow is a belligerent drunk, with a sense of humor that’s more uncomfortably perverted than anything else. He no longer feels necessary to the film. He does not have any motivation for going on this journey. Heck, he does not even have a journey. Most of his escapes are through luck, not through his intellect. Jack Sparrow used to be fun. Now, he feels expendable. It also does not help that Depp seems to be on autopilot in his performance, not bringing in any new layers to the character. Also not helping is that the material given to him is not strong.

Honestly, Rush’s character is becoming more interesting than Depp’s. That is because Rush still gives the character his all, and some revelations give his character new meaning. Thwaites and Scodelario are actually both really charming in their roles. Both have a natural presence and way of playing against each other. There is some electric chemistry between the two. Bardem does show some menace as the villain. Unfortunately, the story stays squarely on Jack Sparrow, diluting these characters from being as interesting as they could have been.

None of the actors are supported by the screenplay from Jeff Nathanson, which crafts a bland mythology and a quest that takes too many unnecessary detours along the way (there’s a “wedding” scene that stands out as being particularly grating and unnecessary). The Pirates plots have had a habit of being too complicated. This one is complicated and convoluted. It makes the whole experience feel longer than it is (at a little over two hours, it’s the shortest film in the series).

There is plenty of visual flair, but all of that is naught when it is used in a story that cannot integrate it well or with meaning. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) definitely bring a lot of great imagery to the film. Bardem’s character and his army are spectacularly gnarly. All are decomposed, with Bardem’s hair defying gravity throughout and some crew being made up of nothing but rotting hands and feet. Their ship is even more spectacular, with its entire base missing, and a scene with rotting ghost sharks is the most exciting in the series and shows a lot of inventiveness. There are grand, sweeping skylines shot by Paul Cameron and a swashbuckling score from Geoff Zanelli that prove to be some of the more vibrant aspects of the film.

Alas, all those eye-catching thrills are for naught when they are stuck in a bloated production that lacks focus and is shepherded by a main character that has lost what made him so popular to begin with. Watching Jack Sparrow in this film is like watching your crass friend drink too much and say obnoxious things at the party, and you just leave embarrassed. Maybe it would be best if dead men told no more tales. | Bill Loellke

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