It continues to be a point of fascination for some habitual overthinkers (including yours truly) that we as a country continue to glorify pirates despite their utterly reprehensible ways. These people were rapists, thieves, killers, and, by most definitions of the word, terrorists. And yet, we sing their songs, fly their flags, and chuckle and squeak as we draw fake stubble on our children’s little faces and shove swords and hooks onto their little hands once a year. Dark history be damned, the pirate is one of the most romanticized, family-friendly figures in pop culture, as is best evidenced by Disney’s eminently popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
The series’ latest entry, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is in some ways the darkest and most gruesome of the five, mostly in imagery–in a quick scene, a ghostly sea captain with half of his head blown off (Javier Bardem) drives a sword through the bellies of a row of hapless victims hanging from their ankles. Such savagery will certainly delight those who enjoy the simple pleasure of watching badasses doing bad things, but what contaminates the pool of badassery is the whimsy and sentimentality that inevitably takes over the story and makes softies of the dirty scoundrels, in typical Disney fashion.
“…a wishy-washy movie that isn’t violent or edgy enough for adults but feels just a bit too disgusting and unsettling for kids.”
Like its predecessors, Dead Men is a wishy-washy movie that isn’t violent or edgy enough for adults but feels just a bit too disgusting and unsettling for kids. This PG-13 middle-ground just doesn’t seem like it’ll satisfy any demographic fully, and while the film treats us to a handful of genuinely fun set pieces and a couple of standout performances, the rest of its elements feel too safe and mass-manufactured to save this sinking series.
The seafaring adventure kicks off in familiar fashion, with Johnny Depp’s ever-drunk Captain Jack Sparrow stumbling and stammering his way into big trouble yet again. After a spectacularly botched bank robbery in a colonial British village in the Caribbean, we find Jack crew-less, ship-less (save for his beloved Black Pearl, shrunken in a bottle in his breast pocket), and even more down on his luck than usual. In a daze, he pawns off a rare relic for a bottle of booze, subsequently awakening a Spanish ship of undead seamen captained by the ruthless Captain Salazar (Bardem), who spits and splutters oily black bile as he vows to get revenge on Jack “the Sparrow,” whose antics led to he and his men being cursed decades before.
Despite his string of bad luck, Jack is eventually joined by two unlikely allies: Henry (Brenton Thwaites), who needs Jack to help him break a curse that imprisons his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), on the Flying Dutchman; and Carina (Kaya Scodelario), a book-smart, orphan astronomer in search of the legendary Trident of Poseidon. The quest is your typical MacGuffin-chase, a thin narrative whose sole purpose is to string together alternating bombastic action sequences and inexplicable character moments (there are so many random flips of allegiances it’s not worth keeping track of).
“I’d rather my pirates remain down and dirty rapscallions to the bitter end.”
The script is predictable all the way through, though directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have a good cinematic sense, elevating the clichéd story with stylized visuals and a looming sense of dread that runs throughout. The art design is terrific, with Salazar’s perpetually rotting crew and their undead pet sharks (too cool) boasting some of the most striking visual effects of the year so far. The swashbuckling shenanigans also feel more refined and easy to follow this time around, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who’ve seen the filmmakers’ beautifully composed Kon-Tiki.
Captain Jack Sparrow is arguably the most iconic role of Depp’s career, and he reinforces the notion with yet another fully-committed performance. The novelty of Jack’s wobbly-legged, Buster Keaton-inspired antics has long worn off, but the schtick is still as entertaining as ever, and his avuncular relationship with the young heroes adds a new wrinkle to the character. Bardem impresses as well in a surprisingly physical performance, oozing intimidation with every crooked step and menacing sneer. He’s like something out of a horror movie, and there’s no doubt he’ll scare the hell out of little kids everywhere, for better or for worse.
Series antagonist Geoffrey Rush returns as captain Barbossa, though he’s launched into a tear-jerker storyline that stems from the root of what makes Dead Men such an underwhelming affair. There’s a permeating coming-of-age theme at play throughout the movie that applies not to young Henry and Carina but, strangely, to Jack and Barbossa. Without spoiling anything, the film ultimately revels in the two of them giving up their dastardly ways to adopt a more honorable life direction. I’d rather my pirates remain down and dirty rapscallions to the bitter end.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) Written by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Starring Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kaya Scodelario, and Brenton Thwaites
Letter grade: C