Disney has proven to be a powerful force over the years with its franchise films, with one swashbuckling tale being seemingly unstoppable….maybe until now. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” films helped define a generation and brought the pirate concept back to mainstream popularity with iconic characters, iconic music, and an action-packed plot that balanced humor, horror, and adventure. The fifth film in the franchise, “Dead Mean Tell No Tales”, hoped to continue that trend, but unlike it’s fellow 2017 Memorial Day release “Baywatch”, which was frankly better than it should have been, this latest installment in the “Pirates” lore proves to be a bit below the hopes and dreams of those hoping for new life and a fresh take on what is frankly a tired franchise.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” picks up around five years after the previous film in the franchise, “On Stranger Tides” with Captain Jack Sparrow, once again portrayed by Johnny Depp, down on his luck as a failing pirate and a drunk trying to regain his credibility while his former first mate, Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, has become the pirate king of the seas. When Jack inadvertently releases the cursed Captain Amando Salazar, played by Javier Bardem, from the Devil’s Triangle, the former Spanish captain goes on the hunt for revenge against Sparrow. The only thing that can save him? The legendary Trident of Poseidon. Sparrow enlists Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of original duo Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer many peg as a witch, to hunt down the magical item with Barbossa, Salazar, and the British Royal Navy in tow.
There’s a lot to point out in this movie, so let me start with the positives, the first being the new cast members. Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario prove to be fresh additions to a franchise certainly in need of some new blood to help carry it along. Most of the drama and action actually focus on these two and Captain Jack Sparrow, as significant as he is to the plot, really takes a back seat to these two as they bicker, banter, and bond over the existence of magic, curses, and each other’s own daddy issues. It was impressive to watch considering that these actors were dumped into a very well established world and earned their place as fitting additions to an ever-expanding cast of misfits.
Javier Bardem also shines as Captain Armando Salazar, a former Spanish captain once bested, and as a result cursed, by the actions of a young Jack Sparrow. Bardem portrays Salazar as a sinister and unforgiving captain, menacing in both persona and image, who seeks revenge for his supernatural captivity. While Salazar is downplayed a bit in this film, Bardem makes the most of his screen time by imbedding fear into every character he comes across and portraying a perfect example of a broken man whose ego and life were shattered by the actions of one single opponent.
The irony here is you start to approach “dull” territory when you look at the characters already familiar to this franchise. By now the character of Hector Barbossa, who proved to be a worthy opponent in the first film, has lost his luster. While Geoffrey Rush tries to keep the character relevant and entertaining, Barbossa fails to shine above almost any major character in the film and is relegated to more of a side character there for the sake of consistency…and to help bring the Black Pearl back into the mix as well as reveal an intriguing, albeit poorly explored, plot twist.
As for Captain Jack Sparrow, that might be the most disappointing aspect of this whole film for me. Johnny Depp has made Sparrow an icon and there’s a reason the pirate is still relevant. However, the charm, whit, and likeability that helped Sparrow shine in the first three films is gone in this movie where Jack is simply relegated to a self-centered drunk with little ambition. Well at least his quibby nature is still intact, even if the film relies more on sexual innuendoes than anything else.
Depp makes an attempt at portraying a more aged and quirky Sparrow, at times even harkening back to his off-kilter portrayal of the Mad Hatter, but this actually fails to live up to the charming and strange nature we are accustomed to seeing from Sparrow. Probably for the first time in this series Jack Sparrow does not feel like the star of the show, nor does he hold the movie on his own shoulders. It takes the charisma of the side characters and the film’s villain to really help lift Sparrow to relevance. After the movie I came to realize we saw Sparrow losing some of his charm in “On Stranger Tides” and here we see irony play out as the character has aged and changed, and as a viewer I felt that both literally and figuratively Jack Sparrow was struggling to remain relevant in a world that has found entertainment elsewhere.
As far as action and production goes “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is actually beautiful to behold, with fantastically designed ships and creative presentations for the villainous ghost crew of Salazar’s ship. The destruction of the ships, mostly at the hands of Salazar, is also a fantastic spectacle to behold as explosions galore litter the seas with the remains of victimized vessels. From a visual perspective the film is an action packed work of art that combines color and grey scale to add detail to not only the characters, but their surroundings as well especially when the pirates find the island they are looking for and we get a dazzling earthly representation of the stars above.
The final conflict is also something to be respected as Salazar, Barbossa, and Sparrow race to Poseidon’s trident with hopes of relieving themselves of their individual curses and demons. The final confrontation takes place above and below the sea and while it may not be the most epic battle in cinema history, it’s satisfying to say the least and adds a few comedic gags and ridiculous moments in for spice. It’s really the only battle in this franchise that balances comedic timing and action nicely so that it’s not too over the top, but still satisfies our craving to some ridiculous swashbuckling action.
On the downside, while the battle scenes and seafaring imagery may be beautiful to behold it’s the opening scenes on land that prove to be a bit “meh”. The film opens with a comedic debut of Sparrow and quickly devolves into a cartoonish chase through a town that serves to be an introduction to much of the cast we will follow for the bulk of this film. While this massive collection of Looney Tunes-esque high jinx proves to be an amusing way to start the film, it begs the viewer to immediately suspend disbelief and feels out of place once you see how relatively grounded and mystical the remainder of the film turns out to be. This opening scene both entertained me and bothered me because it promised a very different style of filmmaking than we actually get with the final product and while I enjoy what we actually DID get a lot more than what the opening chase promised, it makes the first 20 minutes of the film feel forced, as if the filmmakers were pandering to the ridiculous and over the top entertainment that they felt fans of the franchise were begging for without holding true to that approach throughout the entire adventure.
In the end I can’t help but be mixed about “Dead Men Tell No Tales”. To some extent it’s a passable film, with great acting by its newer cast and a refreshing story that even delves into the origin of Captain Jack Sparrow. However its disjointed approach to providing what we all love from this franchise and the lackluster presentation of its familiar characters leaves a lot to be desired. I feel like the “Pirates” franchise is beginning to delve into the same slump as Jack Sparrow himself, an aging, once-renowned property that is grasping for anything left of its former glory. There is still adventure to behold here, but there is also a lot to be desired. While this film is by far among to better films in this franchise, it still can’t quite live up to the lofty expectations and help “Pirates of the Caribbean” avoid the inevitable fate of franchise fatigue.