'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales'
It’s almost impossible to remember a time when a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie qualified as a pleasant surprise hinged on an eccentric Johnny Depp performance that audiences couldn’t get enough of. That happened exactly once, and yet here we are four sequels later squeezing the last few remaining drops of good will out of audiences who inexplicably want more.
It’s hard to find anyone who actually likes any of the ‘Pirates’ sequels even though the lowest grossing one made just under a billion dollars. This one will probably do just as well, not because it deserves the success, but because brand loyalty runs strong and this franchise refuses to die.
There is a plot to this bloated string of set-pieces, but it’s tough to discern between this cobbled together collection of franchise callbacks and genital jokes. (Seriously, it’s insane that this many dick references made it into a movie based on a Disney World ride.) The protagonist initially appears to be Brenton Thwaits, playing the son of Orlando Bloom’s character from the first three ‘Pirates’ movies, determined to break his father’s curse. Then it seems to be about Kaya Scodelario’s accused witch who is following the stars in an attempt to find lost treasure. But wait, this is a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie, so it’s actually about Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, who has to fight off a cursed ghost ship led by Javier Bardem, who didn’t even bother to show up for four movies even though his cursed life has apparently been dedicated to chasing Jack for years. Oh, and Geoffrey Rush is back too. All of them are trying to get the same MacGuffin (Poseidon’s Trident, if you care or if it even matters). All of them connect through various action sequences and one-liners that are rarely as exciting or funny as they’re so supposed to be. Everything sure looks expensive, though. That’s something.
Once again, ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ (don’t worry, that subtitle is spoken aloud, just in case it isn’t obvious enough) has the peculiar problem that plagues most ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. Even though Johnny Depp is the primary reason why this franchise is popular, the movie essentially happens around his character. Exposition and drama are doled out to two boring protagonists with no real personality or depth, while Depp dances around and makes funnies in the corner. It’s getting old. The story is deeply rooted in franchise mythology and callbacks, which would be fine if anyone actually cared about the mythology or even remembered it. It’s all quite confusing, convoluted and meaningless. There are attempts to manufacture emotional connection that go nowhere and flailing grasps to cram in rah-rah feminist heroics that feel far more like pandering for commercial appeal than an honest attempt at action movie equality. The deep-cut sequel has plenty of events and plot dumps, but nothing that adds up to anything meaningful or exciting. It’s just a bunch a stuff to excuse expensive explosions and movie star mugging.
On the plus side, the action is fantastic. Directing duties fell to the Norwegian duo of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who previously proved to have a knack for big set-pieces in ‘Max Manus‘ and ‘Kon-Tiki‘, but now have the resources to go completely nuts. The action sequences in ‘Pirates 5: Yep, This Again’ are big, bold and impressive – especially a clever bit involving a spinning guillotine that’s pretty damn great. The sets are gorgeous and massive. The effects are stunning and the designs of the pirate ghost army quite imaginative and creepy for a family-friendly blockbuster. This would make for some damn fine popcorn entertainment were it not for the fact that it’s nearly impossible to care about any of the characters or follow any of the plot threads. The movie is executed at the highest technical level that Hollywood is capable of, but the content is so empty and overblown that it feels like a big waste of time and talent despite all the pretty pictures.
It’s not just the crew’s efforts that are wasted, either. Depp, Bardem and Rush all act at a loud enough volume to overcome the effects and earn their paychecks, but they just don’t have lines or scenes worthy of their efforts. The expensive effects and performances aggressively compete for attention in an endless stream of frantically paced sequences signifying nothing. It’s nothing new. This has been a problem in every single ‘Pirates’ sequel. If anything, ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ is one of the least obnoxious. However, the fact that there have been so many of these disappointing sequels compounds the problems for anyone suffering through the same mess yet again.
The movie is best summed up by its highly publicized Paul McCartney cameo. He pops up for a few minutes in a throwaway scene that has nothing to do with anything other than flaunting McCartney and letting Depp enjoy himself with a Beatle. It’s pointless and disposable, but pricy and flashy in its mediocrity. That’s something a studio machine can sell and undiscerning viewers will enjoy momentarily before forgetting they ever saw it. Unfortunately, that brand of excessively expensive nonsense is profitable, especially when it’s called ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. The movie will make money even though no one will admit to liking it. Then in a few years we’ll get another one. Or maybe we’ll get lucky and this one will make just slightly less than expected and bring the franchise to an end. Dare to dream.