True story: I caught Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales during a ‘mystery movie’ screening in advance of its official opening (over at Prague’s Cinema City Slovanský dům), and for a good forty minutes I had no idea if I was watching the previous movie in the franchise or the newest one.
I had no recollection of Pirates 4, not even the title, despite having seen and reviewed it a few years back, and everything about this one seemed familiar. I blame this movie’s heavy reliance on formula from the previous films (especially 1 and possibly 4) and an over-inundation on pre-release publicity, which somehow fused to my memories of past films. I could swear I had seen Javier Bardem’s ghostly baddie before.
When Paul McCartney showed up for a surprise cameo, however, the mystery was over: I would have surely remembered this kind of gratuitous fan service.
Like other movies in the franchise, Pirates 5 is what you expect: a couple of bland youngsters that no one cares about drive the story while Johnny Depp mugs in a supporting role that overtakes the film and a pair of Oscar winners buried under mounds of makeup compete for screentime.
Everything here is competing against itself. The filmmakers want Depp to be irreverent and careless, but because he’s the face of the franchise, they need to give him a story. It’s one so thin it barely has a pulse: poor ol’ Captain Jack becomes distraught (and very, very drunk) after he loses the support of his crew, and needs to somehow regain it to, uh, complete the character arc.
Meanwhile, half the running time is dedicated to two characters nobody cares about: Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the offspring of the two characters no one cared about in the first three movies (Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, who briefly reprise their roles here), and Carina Amyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astrologer who holds the key to getting where all the characters want to get.
And that would be the location of Poseidon’s Trident, which everybody wants because it can… er, control the ocean? Or something. Henry just wants it to save his dad. I could have sworn these two characters were in the last movie, but no. Thwaites and Scodelario are game, but the filmmakers are so concerned with the two leads moving the story forward they forgot to give them characters to play (Bloom and Knightley at least shared a romance in the earlier films; here’s there’s barely a hint).
Into the mix come the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who wants to kill Depp’s Jack Sparrow for, uh, killing him years ago, and Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), whose only reason for being in this movie is that he happens to come across Salazar’s path. Wasn’t Barbossa a ghostly baddie in the first film? Haven’t we seen all this before?
Yeah, yeah. The best bits in Pirates 5 come at the beginning: within the first half-hour, there are two large-scale action sequences that see Depp’s Sparrow go full Buster Keaton and stumble through chaos. That bit with the guillotine is especially fun. Later, there’s a nifty sequence with some zombie sharks.
Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, well, they manage to transition the mess of a script to the big screen, which couldn’t have been easy. They were recruited for this movie based on the strength of their last, Kon-Tiki, which was also set at sea. Only question: why does that movie, which cost less than one-tenth of this Pirates sequel, look so much better?
No fan of this series – the second film’s surreal set pieces are all that stand out in my mind – I don’t think anyone going into Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales should be disappointed by more of the same, as stale as most it is. This isn’t the most painful Pirates movie – that would be the bloated third entry – but it (probably) equals the fourth as a bland, disposable, and instantly forgettable addition to a franchise badly in need of some innovation.