Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ★★ ½ Now playing
In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Captain Jack Sparrow, the role that once earned Johnny Depp his first Oscar nomination, literally jumps a shark. It’s a ghost shark, but the metaphor couldn’t be more conspicuous. A little of the rakish Sparrow has always gone a long way, but in the latest films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, he's shifted to the center of the swashbuckling. In this fifth voyage, the inebriated pirate’s preening and trademark non sequiturs seem more hoary—he twice pleads for mercy by confessing to being “a bedwetter,” for some reason.
That said, Sparrow is still the reason we bother to watch these movies—they can’t win with him, but they can’t win without him. Even if his Keith Richards-meets-Pepe Le Pew act feels as weathered as driftwood, his Buster Keaton-esque set pieces are the creative glee in Dead Men Tell No Tales, whether Captain Jack is perilously perched at the razor’s edge of a spinning guillotine or stealing an entire bank.
Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay tries to return Sparrow as wingman to a central love story. This go-round, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Will (Orlando Bloom), wants to free his dad from conscripted captaincy of the Flying Dutchman. For that he’ll need to find the mythic trident of Poseidon, which also just happens to be the only device capable of defeating the wraithlike crew of Javier Bardem’s Captain Anton Chigurh … er, Armando Salazar, an undead pirate hunter of the Spanish navy who spends most of the film hissing “Jack” and “Sparrow” while black goo oozes out of his mouth.
To find the trident, Turner turns for help to Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario), an Elizabeth Swann stand-in who is suspected of being a witch but is really just an astronomer who knows how to read celestial maps. Carina wants to find the trident because, well … something about finding her long-lost birth dad. Meanwhile, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now so wealthy he wears a jewel-encrusted peg leg, returns to once again play both sides against the middle, even as his motives remain murky.
Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (the Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki) accurately capture the mise-en-scène, from the creaking of the timbers, the surge of the sea, and the rattle of cannon fire. But the story is flotsam, a nonsensical retread of recycled elements: sword fights, ship battles, a supernatural villain, ghost pirates, and a mystical MacGuffin.
Then there are the de rigueur cameos: Bloom pops up twice, including in an opening scene featuring makeup so slapdash it suggests he squeezed in the appearance during a layover. Keira Knightley saunters through for less than thirty seconds of screen time and zero words of dialogue. An almost unrecognizable British rock music legend not named Keith Richards at least gets a few funny, if inconsequential, lines.
The chemistry between Thwaites and Scodelario is like oil and salt water, and the bombast is both oppressive and pro forma. Even the sound mixing is muddled, with the audio effects and a score by Hans Zimmer acolyte Geoff Zanelli frequently drowning out Sparrow’s mutterings.
Even if its milieu has run aground, this film is at least an improvement over the leaden On Stranger Tides. The finale resets and resolves the narrative from the original trilogy, which I thought had already been done. Dead men may tell no tales, but neither do dying film series.