Mark Reviews Movies

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


2 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg

Cast: Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Adam Brown, Giles New, Orlando Bloom, Paul McCartney, Keira Knightley

MPAA Rating:  (for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content)

Running Time: 2:09

Release Date: 5/26/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 25, 2017

A bit of the old magic returns with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. It's not nearly enough to pull this series out of its creative rut, in which it has been stuck since around the finale of the second entry.

At first, the major problem seemed to be on of tone. From the start, the series established itself as a rollicking adventure in swashbuckling that didn't take itself too seriously. The third movie, though, was a dully self-serious affair, and while the fourth installment tried to reestablish the sense of fun, it was ultimately overburdened by a vast cast of supporting players and a plot that seemed far too familiar. The last one tried, but it tried too hard. It showed.

This one is an improvement over the previous movie. Part of the reason is that connects—somewhat indirectly—to the story that unfolded over the course of the first three installments. There's slightly more reason to care about the new supporting characters here, because their histories are tied to characters we already know. They're also connected in ways that make this one a continuation of a lengthy tale that, for the most part, worked in one way or another.

It also gives Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who—by injecting some goofiness when the plot starts to bloat—serves as the franchise's tonal compass of sorts, a bit more to do than in the previous outing. The whole point of these movies is, at their best, simply to have fun with these high-seas adventures, and Jack is, at his best, the embodiment of that spirit.

One thing that this movie helps to clarify, though, is that the series' swift downfall was only partly to do with matters of tone. That shift—from jovial, semi-mocking entertainment to a big, bloated epic of severity—had to have come from somewhere—from out of something within the elements of the story. This fifth entry (which should, by any logic except that of Hollywood, be the final one, given that every story arc is complete and that there are no loose ends at the finale) makes the origin easy to identify.

It's a love of self-contained mythology. All of these movies have relied on at least one mystical MacGuffin to drive the plot—a ship, a compass, the heart of a cursed sailor, the Fountain of Youth. The item here is the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which has powers that are vague enough to be of specific need to just about every character in the story. Over the course of the movie, it's pretty much the only thing about which these characters talk, whether they're reminding us why they need the thing or they're explaining how to find it. For as much talking as these characters do about it, the magical thingamajig might as well be the movie's central character.

The other characters include Henry (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will (Orlando Bloom) from the first three movies, who has spent his entire life searching for a means to break his father's curse, and Carina (Kaya Scodelario), an orphan who has spent her entire life trying to decipher a riddle left to her by her unknown father. Both problems can be solved by the trident, so through a series of shenanigans far too convoluted to describe succinctly (Part of it involves a bank heist that results in the entire bank being dragged through the streets and a last-second rescue that results in a dizzying gag involving a revolving guillotine), the two enlist the aid of Jack.

He needs the trident to stop Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead pirate hunter whom Jack defeated in his youth. Salazar needs the trident to break his own curse. The British Empire wants it to retain control of the seas, and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) half-heartedly allies himself with Salazar, who has been destroying his pirate fleet, in order to defeat the ghastly sailor.

The screenplay, written by Jeff Nathanson, is in a constant state of self-justification. It's heavy on repetitive exposition (The one exception to the repetition is a lengthy flashback to how Salazar ended up as he is) and offering a feeling of familiarity (not only in terms of tying the new characters to the old ones but also in how, for example, Salazar's crew of deteriorated sailors are reminiscent of the skeleton crew from the first film). When it isn't dealing in plot and nostalgia, this entry is funnier than the last two movies, although the tradeoff of relying on the old ways is that the new characters feel like they're along for the ride, not substantial and worthwhile parts of it.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg bring some creative-enough action sequences here (A hopping chase along the exposed cannons of two ships and some undead sharks come to mind), while the humor doesn't always work, it both is here and doesn't feel desperate. Whatever its improvements, though, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales still feels like the case of a series that has run its course. It needs new life, new blood, or, perhaps the best option, the realization that it's finished.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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