Disney captured lightning in a bottle in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie defied all expectations for a movie based on a theme park ride and was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It made a ton of money and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Now, fourteen years later, we are on the fifth installment of the franchise that started out so well but quickly succumbed to blockbuster bloat.
I don’t think the Pirates sequels are as bad as their reputation suggests. They’re deeply flawed and none of them quite managed to recapture the magic of the first movie, but there are things I like about them. My least favorite is the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which suffered from lackadaisical pacing, an inconsequential plot, and what I felt was a lack of exciting action. Fortunately, the new movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is livelier than its immediate predecessor, although unsurprisingly it still has its share of flaws. It does have the good sense to be shorter than the previous films, and at just over two hours it is the shortest film in the entire series, so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Let’s talk about Johnny Depp for a second. His portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the first movie was instantly iconic, and for all the issues the subsequent films had, Depp’s performance was not one of them. But in this movie, it feels less like Depp playing Jack Sparrow than Depp playing a guy playing Jack Sparrow. He’s become a caricature of himself. Remember Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder saying “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”? It’s kind of like that. Depp had a way of purring his lines in the earlier films, and made the viewer think that he was always thinking several steps ahead, despite also appearing constantly inebriated. But in the latest film, he squeaks every line and is mostly a cartoonish buffoon. It’s hard to take him seriously as a protagonist anymore.
But on the plus side, I loved the villains in this movie. Javier Bardem, always an excellent choice to play a villain, plays Capitan Salazar, the spectral captain of a ship full of ghost pirates. The ghost pirates are extremely cool, and some of them are even missing body parts. These ghostly villains were the highlight of the movie for me, and Bardem in particular is fantastic. It’s not too surprising that Bardem steals the movie, since he neatly ran away with Skyfall and No Country For Old Men as well. Capitan Salazar is incredibly menacing, and his hair and parts of his costume appear to float around him, as if he were constantly underwater. He has history with Captain Jack and a deep hatred of all pirates, and doesn’t hesitate to kill whoever and whenever he wants. He and his crew can walk on water and unleash ZOMBIE SHARKS, which is a new one for this franchise.
The rest of the plot revolves around a quest for the Trident of Poseidon, and if you rolled your eyes at that, I don’t blame you. In addition to Captain Jack and the Ghost Pirates (which would be a good name for a rock band), there are a few new characters in the mix. One is a young man named Henry, played by Brenton Thwaites, and saying his character’s last name would give away a major plot point, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to find the Trident, which has the power to end all sea-related curses and gives its wielder power over the sea itself. There’s also a young woman named Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, a woman of science whom everyone thinks is a witch because she’s so smart.
The new characters are a bit bland, the actors’ performances are fine but there’s nothing really special about them. But it’s always fun to see Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa, the once-undead, once-actually-dead, once-evil, now-good former captain of the Black Pearl. Times have been good for Barbossa, he commands a fleet of ships and his flagship is adorned with golden skulls. His long, curly hair makes him look quite a bit like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, but Rush looks like he’s having the most fun out of anyone in the movie.
There is no shortage of creative action in the movie, which made me happy since the previous film, On Stranger Tides, didn’t have as much action as I would have liked, and what action it did have was played mostly for laughs. This movie is more engaging and moves more smoothly than the third and fourth movies, despite Depp’s bizarre performance and the somewhat cliched plot. It also fixes one of the biggest issues I had with the resolution of the third movie, At World’s End, although to say more would spoil it. But I am glad that the filmmakers resolved this plot point, since it always bothered me.
Dead Men Tell No Tales has its share of issues, but there’s fun to be had, and Captain Jack still has some tipsy adventures left in him. There’s a post-credits stinger that teases the possible return of a villain from the previous movies, so if this one makes enough money maybe we’ll be seeing him again, even though that wouldn’t make any sense from a plot standpoint. But it wouldn’t be the first time the series has brought previously-dead villains back to life, so who knows. In the meantime, I like to think the zombie sharks are still out there…