Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the fifth chapter in the apparently immortal franchise, and like most of us, it pretends part four (On Stranger Tides) never happened. But that isn’t enough to pull the series out of its tailspin. Despite the impressive special effects and spectacular visuals, though, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fairly charmless and wearingly frenetic sequel with a feeling of desperate obligation to it. I think (as I often do) of “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose most recent album was called Mandatory Fun. YOU WILL WATCH THESE PIRATE SHENANIGANS AND YOU WILL BE AMUSED BY THEM! ARE YOUR SWASHES NOT BUCKLED?!
Original director Gore Verbinski has not returned, but neither has part four director Rob Marshall. We have instead a pair of Norwegians, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, overseeing a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, Rush Hour 3) that returns us to the story of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, but don’t worry, he’s not in the movie very much). Back in part three (At World’s End), Turner was condemned to pilot the Flying Dutchman for eternity, and now his teenage son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites), desires to free him. To do this he needs Poseidon’s trident, which can break any sea-related curse, but to find the trident he needs a special map, but to find the map he needs a magical compass. Somehow this all means that he needs Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).
Jack, drunker than ever and lacking a ship or crew, teams up with Henry after asking leeringly about his mother (the Keira Knightley character, remember?), which is creepy and off-putting but I guess still less offensive than the behavior of actual pirates. They are joined by one Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an orphan who’s accused of being a witch because she understands science. She has an astronomy diary kept by her father (whom she never knew) that aids in finding the map, etc.
Meanwhile, there is yet another undead pirate with yet another undead crew in pursuit of Jack Sparrow for purposes of revenge. His name is Capt. Salazar (Javier Bardem), and he is very Ethpanish. He has zombie sharks at his disposal, which doesn’t make any sense but is kind of cool, which is the POTC franchise in a nutshell. Good ol’ Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who used to be undead, is in the story, too, chasing after the same stuff as everybody else. Geoffrey Rush, a seasoned and dedicated actor, gives everything to his performance, finding the truth in the character even when the situations are absurd. There are other good actors here too, but none who give a full measure the way Rush does. Depp, in particular, seems to be phoning it in, as if it recently dawned on him that he is cursed to play this role forever.
This is the shortest film in the series — 129 minutes, including the obligatory unnecessary post-credits teaser — and perhaps the one with the simplest plot. It compensates for these achievements by stuffing itself with exhausting, ceaseless buffoonery and uninspired slapstick, mediocre, you-can-tell-this-is-the-fifth-one dialogue, and a noticeable uptick in sexism. Jack Sparrow and his mates talk a lot about whores, and there’s a cringing sequence where Jack is forced at gunpoint to marry a hideous chubby woman, har har. Again, I realize this is better than actual pirate behavior — they were thieves, murderers, and rapists — but it’s awfully retrograde for escapist family fare. (There are dozens and dozens of killings, too, but one assumes families are OK with that as long as it has the Disney stamp of approval.)
The climactic final sequence is a good bit of fun, with an energy and purpose not found elsewhere in the film. Alas, it’s too late. By the time we get there, we’ve endured too much bland, loud nonsense to be won over by a sudden burst of competence. Disney needs to let the series die. And unlike all the characters in it, it needs to stay dead.
Eric D. Snider lives in Portland, where people pretend to be pirates because they never grew up.