Film Review: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’ is a boring treasure hunt that comes up empty

The biggest question I had when walking into the fifth and latest Pirates of the Caribbean was one I think a lot of people are feeling about many different tentpoles every summer. Who on Earth wanted another one of these movies outside of the Disney shareholders? The fourth film’s lack of success with audiences and critics showed there just wasn’t much in the way of interest about the exploits of Jack Sparrow and company anymore. But Disney pushed on ahead, hoping that the cash money would still flow in from all of us rubes out here who slog to the multiplex every week just to get out of the house and stop being consumed by our crippling depression. Trust me, people love some good scabies jokes, and they’re going to be willing to pay 3D ticket prices in order to get them in the biggest format possible.

Anyways, it goes without saying that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a boring rehash of everything you might have loved back in the series heyday but done significantly worse, without a sense of flair or the visual stylization that former series director Gore Verbinski endowed his films with. In short, it’s the fourth film all over again.

Ya boy Jack Sparrow (who else) has found himself in without any luck. After a big heist that results in him losing all of his plunder and his crew, and in desperate need of a ship, Jack turns to the bottle and gives up a magical compass in exchange for some booze. That trade somehow frees a bunch of dead pirate-hunting ghosts, led by Jack’s old enemy Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) from their rocky mid-Atlantic netherworld, and they try to kill a motherfucker. In order to stop the ghost pirates, Jack must team up with the son of Will and Elizabeth Turner (Brenton Thewaites), who’s looking to free his father from the Flying Dutchman, and a young lady scientist (Kaya Scodelario), orphaned at a young age and hoping to honor her long-lost father, to follow the stars and find Poseidon’s Trident, a mythical thing that can do whatever the hell the plot wants it to, and also break curses somehow.

To start, I’ve got to say how difficult it’s become to enjoy a Johnny Depp performance in this day and age when he plays a drunk loser, given that the real life Depp is edging closer and closer to that every day, though with a heavy streak of malice now behind him in the wake of the rumors around his split with Amber Heard. His Sparrow schtick has never been more grating, and scenes feel like they’re written around him to provide him with the fewest action beats possible. His one-liners fall flat left and right, and thank Christ he never says “where’s the rum gone” even once, as not having to go down that gag path is a wonderful gift from the people at Disney.

Even though the film attempts to reorient him as an outside presence separate from the two significantly younger leads, he’s still the ostensible protagonist here, and the film spends all the time it can muster reminding you of it. Barely a minute passes without someone uttering his character’s name, both first and last, in shock or hatred or whatever, and I figured three quarters of Bardem’s dialogue is just that — he spends so much time saying “Yak Schparo” through clenched and blackened teeth that it’s hard not to be totally underwhelmed when you find out that, quite literally, a sharp u-turn is the source for all of his hatred for the pirate.

Bardem’s work as a villain is getting pretty tired now, as all of his supports are ripped out from under him. He doesn’t have the suggestive writing behind him that made his Skyfall performance a delight, or the strength of material and direction given to him by the Coens for his iconic part in No Country For Old Men. Here, given a script written by committee and two directors deeply out of their depth, he reverts entirely to hissing his lines incomprehensibly as if his jaw were wired shut and adds no further depth to his character.

The series has never been able to top Barbossa as an antagonist, though it might have been in the best interest of the series to turn him into the good guy; Rush is a beacon of joy in each of these films, partially because he acts like such a quintessential on-screen pirate, yo-ho-ho and all of that jazz. Bardem and his ghost pirates can’t come close to dethroning him and the crew of the Black Pearl from early on. Sadly, they’re the most interesting part of the whole film.

The other leads are there and are, for what it’s worth, inoffensive. Thewaites mainly just looks around and reacts at things, and Scodelario, presumably our Strong Female Character, gets wrapped up in so many daddy issues you’d think she was in the second act of Guardians Vol. 2. They’re underwritten, of course, and are subject more to the whims of the plot and the template of these movies more than anything organic or properly developed. Their romance appears out of thin air in the middle of an action sequence, and their moments of make-cute are so poorly written it’s astonishing that the actors were able to say their lines without tripping over them.

It’s unrealistic and stilted enough that it breaks the thin suspension of disbelief that these movies already have, thanks to Depp and company, and that’s saying something. But as set-piece fodder and the occasional subjects of quip-making, they’re perfectly passable, much as Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were back in the day. The rest of the cast barely makes an impression — it’s impressive how Depp’s crew never truly ages, though — and the evil soldiers of the British Empire are a significantly underwhelming fusion of Jack Davenport’s Commodore Norrington and Tom Hollander’s East India company man, an inept bunch of progs who want to use the powers of the macguffin at the heart of the film to rule over the oceans.

Here, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg do a decently competent job of aping Verbinski’s stylistic flair, but there’s nothing as original and outstanding as the final Black Pearl setpiece or even the frenetic and fun moments in the two Verbinski sequels. It’s dreadfully dull, action-wise, as the once-spectacular sword fights have been totally eliminated to (perhaps) shoot around an aging star, and nothing has any fucking weight, thanks to an overreliance on surprisingly mediocre special effects. The movie’s first action sequence is a lifeless imitation of the crazy heist in Fast Five that somehow manages to completely bungle the pacing and the excitement that made that Rio heist so memorable.

We get another case of Disney’s wondrous de-aging process in a flashback that tells us how Jack Sparrow got his name (which we all were clamoring for, of course), but it’s significantly less impressive than what’s done in any of the Marvel movies, as it’s undermined by every shot of the young Sparrow speaking. Aside from that, it’s absolutely astonishing that, almost eleven years later, the later entries in the series haven’t topped the VFX from the second and third films. The ghost crew here is a painfully derivative fusion of the antagonists from the first and second films, and it just winds up whiffing in terms of memorability. Remember when that Davy Jones’ henchman didn’t have a head or how cool it was to see skeletal Geoffrey Rush for the first time? You’re going to get a half-assed version of both here, and you’re going to wish you were watching those other sequels, which is a haunting proposition that should fill you with an existential dread.

There’s a few fleeting moments of fun throughout the runtime; a joke about the word “horologist” briefly recalls the better screenplays of the earlier films, and there’s one particularly fun bit involving Depp and a guillotine (though it’s not quite as satisfying as beheading Sparrow and just letting the goddamn thing end after thirty minutes). But it’s not enough to justify a 129 minutes of movie. Part of me wonders if this is completely a holdover from the Rich Ross-era at Disney, when mediocre clunkers like Mars Needs Moms and John Carter caused that executive to get his ass thrown out the door after they inevitably flopped, as there’s a meaninglessness to the whole ordeal, an emptiness that can’t even be filled by the fact that this is guaranteed to make a couple hundred million at the box office.

Gore Verbinski has never been missed more by a franchise. Even The Ring series is in better shape because it least it knew when to abandon its lead characters in search of new grounds, regardless of the quality of its latest entry. At least Rings tried something fundamentally different than what that franchise was used to. Dead Men Tell No Tales can’t say anything close to that, and it might wind up being the summer’s most pointless blockbuster. In a summer that’s giving us more installments of the Transformers, Cars, and Nut Job series, that’s saying something.

Follow Nick Johnson on Twitter @onlysaysficus.