The latest film in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise may be the shortest of all five, but it felt like the longest. Hell, during the prologue of Dead Men Tell No Tales, I actually resorted to doing basic math in my head to occupy the slow passage of time.
It’s during this prologue that we’re introduced to Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan), the 12-year-old son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). Given that this film skips ahead nine more years to reintroduce us to the now adult Henry (Brenton Thwaites), this would seem to make Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow somewhere around, oh, 65 years old, give or take. But hey, we should never presume that actors’ ages correspond to the characters they’re playing. Otherwise, we’d also be left to consider that Thwaites (27) is only five years younger than the actress who plays his mother. Ah, Hollywood.
Beyond the numerical nonsense though, we’re left with a film that’s equally as convoluted as those that have come before, only with less of a directorial stamp than the series’ best efforts. Norwegian co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg—boyhood friends who impressed with their previous ocean-bound adventure, 2012’s Kon-Tiki, an Oscar nominee for Foreign Language Film—may be a step up from the bland razzle-dazzle of Rob Marshall, who brought some of the chintzy excess of his movie musicals (Chicago, Into the Woods) to 2011’s On Stranger Tides, still the series’ weakest entry. But the duo nonetheless lack the keen eye for detail and flair for over-the-top comic action that Gore Verbinski brought to the original trilogy—think Buster Keaton, but with a blockbuster budget.
And let’s face it: No one expected much from the first film, 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl, considering its origins as a theme park ride. But avast ye mateys, the franchise’s original seafaring adventure went on to earn the respect of critics, more than $650 million in global box office receipts and the first of three Oscar nominations for Depp, who’d previously been seen by many as a quirky fringe performer.
Verbinski was smart to recognize that Depp was best deployed as he was originally billed: a sidekick and comic foil to the main action and plot. And while the Turner/Swann romance that drove the first film became increasingly tedious over his two sequels, their role as the noble leads allowed Verbinski to deploy the dipsomaniacal Captain Jack not only as the films’ central clown, but also as a villain when necessary. His drunken antics have been pretty dark, after all.
This changed with On Stranger Tides, which shifted Captain Jack front and center after Turner and Swann sailed off into the sunset at the end of Verbinski’s trilogy. Or did they? Not only did I spend the early part of Dead Men Tell No Tales trying to keep track of everyone’s hypothetical ages, but I also passed the time trying to recall what had actually become of Turner and Swann, since a notably beefier Will turns up in that prologue as a cursed pirate, his face covered in barnacles. Wasn’t this the fate of his father (Stellan Skarsgård’s Bootstrap Bill) in At World’s End?
At any rate, Rønning, Sandberg and their screenwriter, Jeff Nathanson (writer of Steven Spielberg’s wonderful, real-life con man caper, 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, along with the director’s less-than-wonderful 2008 misfire, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), have correctly decided to push Captain Jack back to the sidelines. Depp may have his name above the title, but he’s taken a back seat to this film’s romance. Unfortunately, Thwaites’ Henry and the object of his affection, orphan and accused witch Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), have little of the chemistry that sparked Turner and Swann’s courtship.
Thankfully, there’s still a decent villain to put some wind into the film’s sails. While not quite as indelible a creation as Bill Nighy’s tentacle-covered Davy Jones from Verbinski’s second and third entries, Academy Award winner Javier Bardem nevertheless steals the show as Captain Salazar, a Spanish pirate who drowned in the Devil’s Triangle. Thanks to one of Captain Jack’s many bad decisions, the undead Salazar once again roams the oceans, captaining his shipwreck as his black hair swirls around his cracked visage as though he were still underwater.
Yarrr, if only the rest of this rehash were nearly as creative.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales **
Starring Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin R. McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Lewis McGowan, Paul McCartney and Keira Knightley. Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Written by Jeff Nathanson, based on a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio and characters created by Rossio, Ted Elliott, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.