There may or may not be a hefty dose of irony in the fact that, in the middle of the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which is subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales, a dead man tells a very long tale. Of course, as with all the previous entries in the now 14-year-old franchise, dead men are often not completely, entirely, irrevocably dead, so it shouldn't come as much surprise that one is able to regale us with the lengthy history of how he, well, came to be dead, a tale that just happens to involve the franchise's salty, incorrigible antihero Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who we get to see (courtesy of digital smoothing) as a rowdy young man with no facial hair, shorter dreadlocks, and significantly less eyeliner.
The dead man telling the tale is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem)-or, as Sparrow calls him, "a Spanish captain named something-something Spanish"-who was on a crusade to eradicate pirates from the seas before he crossed paths with a young Sparrow and wound up, along with his entire crew, in a cursed state of zombie purgatory, trapped in ghostly burned-out bodies inside a cave in the so-called "Devil's Triangle," just waiting to be released (which happens courtesy of Jack selling his mythical compass for a bottle of booze). Salazar, whose face looks like broken porcelain and whose hair floats around his temples as if he is constantly underwater, launches immediately into vengeance mode in trying as he tracks down Jack, who is at a particularly low career point after a raucous would-be bank robbery in St. Martin nets him a single coin and costs him his entire crew. He ultimately finds himself paired with Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the grown son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who, as we saw during a post-credit sequence in the last Pirates movie, is cursed and trapped at the bottom of the ocean, and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a young woman who is accused of being a witch because she knows about science. Henry is on a mission to recover the fabled Trident of Poseidon, which supposedly has the power to break any curse, and Carina conveniently is in possession of a map that leads to it (although it is a map "no man can read"). Salazar, meanwhile, is joined by Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who cuts a deal with Salazar to spare his fleet in exchange for his help in tracking down Jack, his old nemesis.
As that brief plot summary will attest, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a reunion movie of sorts, bringing back virtually all the major characters from earlier films, including some we haven't seen since 2007's At World's End, the lumbering conclusion to the series' original labyrinthine trilogy. Seeing familiar faces certainly helps to grease the movie's sometimes creaky wheels, although it also suggests that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is moving quickly toward a state of diminishing returns. Jack, who was so refreshingly offbeat and strange in the original movie, has become such a familiar presence that even Depp's most concerted effort can't quite shake off the dust; he's become long in the tooth in more ways than one. Geoffrey Rush happily chews the scenery as always, while Bardem simply glowers and dribbles sinewy lines of black goo from his lips. Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are both attractive and forgettable, which doesn't do much to breathe renewed life into the series (I imagine that if there is a sixth entry, they won't be in it).
Yet, Dead Men Tell No Tales is rousing enough at times to make it almost worth the return trip to a series that improbably sprung from a theme park ride, a seemingly miraculous one-off success story that Disney has been unable to achieve elsewhere (and don't think they haven't tried, with 2002's The Country Bears, 2003's The Haunted Mansion, and 2015's Tomorrowland all landing with a thud). Norwegian directors Joachim Rnning and Espen Sandberg, who are making their Hollywood debut following their well-received historical adventure Kon-Tiki (2012), stick closely to what has worked before, with big set-pieces like a destructive chase through the streets of St. Martin with Jack inside a massive iron vault (a nod to or a rip-off of the climax of the much better fifth series entry Fast Five, perhaps?) and a scene involving zombie sharks ruling the day. Rnning and Sandberg's direction is largely invisible, mostly because the genre in which they are working is so thoroughly proscribed for them. Similarly, screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who previously scripted Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2003), The Terminal (2004), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), also appears to be working largely from a template, given that he concocted the story with Terry Rossio, who has had a hand in writing all the previous entries. The result is a movie that is undeniably fun at times, but also a little too familiar and derivative to achieve anything other than intermittent pleasures.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Walt Disney Pictures
Overall Rating: (2.5)
Get a daily dose of Toronto Telegraph news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.