Looking quickly at the prospectus for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, in which the son of the series’ Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley characters joins forces with a mysterious orphan to master the sea’s arcane mysteries and do what his forebearers could not, you might well label it Pirates: The Next Generation. But unlike the Star Trek franchise-extender, this one is nowhere near bold enough to think it can dispense with its aging protagonist: Johnny Depp’s cartoonishly louche Keith Richards-meets-Hunter Thompson pirate Jack Sparrow, the globally recognized caricature who by now feels (appropriately) more like a theme-park mascot than a Hollywood swashbuckler.
Depp remains wholeheartedly the focus of this fifth Pirates film, and saying the character’s loopy novelty has faded is like complaining that there are maggots in the below-decks gruel: You knew what you were getting when you came aboard. Despite its limp zingers and a phoned-in star performance, this episode — directed with little distinction by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, of 2012’s Kon-Tiki — hits enough familiar notes to continue its predecessors’ commercial success, keeping a small city’s worth of VFX artists employed until Depp decides he can’t be bothered anymore.
Like the series’ heroes, who are always coping with malicious spells cast by ancient Aztecs, Davy Jones or overeager corporate executives, these films are saddled with an exotic curse: The first Pirates was simply much more fun than any movie based on a tarted-up kiddie ride should be, and attempts to recapture that sense of surprise are doomed to look desperate or hacky. The closest the sequels ever get is in their state-of-the-art imagining of storybook wonder, where a very high bar was set the first go-round. Remember those accursed sailors in the first pic who, when seen in moonlight, were revealed to be skeletons? Tell No Tales gives us a crew, led by Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar, who look like you attacked each one indiscriminately with a digital eraser — turning an elbow and forearm to thin air, for instance, while a sword-wielding hand still moves out there where it should be. Some of his men lack jaws or cheekbones or even entire heads, but Salazar has his full set of mandibles, which he enthusiastically uses to chomp down on any nearby scenery.
Salazar is this film’s central antagonist, who at the start descends on a Royal Navy vessel that has sailed too close to the Devil’s Triangle. “Who are you?” a terrified sailor asks. “Deeeaaath,” Salazar croaks. Salazar kills all the crew but one: Henry (Brenton Thwaites), the now-grown son of Bloom’s Will Turner and Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann. And when it emerges that Henry has been seeking Dad’s old mate Jack Sparrow, Salazar gives him a message to carry to the man whose magic compass is somehow the key to his eternal imprisonment: I’ll be whole again someday, and when I am, you’re dead.
Not long after, we watch Captain Sparrow barter that magic compass for a bottle of booze on the island of Saint Martin. He has just suffered through a fairly ridiculous bank robbery-gone-wrong, a bombastic farce that appears to have cost him the few mates who’d remained loyal to him and introduced him to some new ones: Henry, who wants to help Sparrow find Poseidon’s trident — which has the power to “break any curse at sea,” including the one that condemned Will Turner to eternal duty on the Flying Dutchman; and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a self-taught astronomer in possession of a magic book that might show the way.
Scodelario, of the Maze Runner films and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, is just about the only member of the cast who seems to believe she’s expected to be more than a thin generic functionary or flamboyant scene-stealer. Which is unfortunate, given how Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay sometimes treats her. In her first scene, Carina is in prison awaiting execution (something about witchcraft, of course), and while she’s fully capable of picking the lock of her cell, she waits to do so until a priest comes to hear her last words. Why? Presumably because there’s no other way to show she’s a badass. When her escape thrusts her into the mayhem Sparrow’s creating outside, she insists to him that she’s not looking for trouble. “What a horrible way to live,” Depp quips soggily, and viewers will recall times at which the actor might have made that funny and charming.
Things proceed noisily from here, as the pursuit of the Trident attracts the attention of old Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who was practically choking on riches before Salazar escaped the Devil’s Triangle and started killing all the pirates he found. Whether he’s on Sparrow’s side or not is always in question. But Rush will wind up the focus of one of the picture’s more satisfying set-pieces, a fantastical escape evoking everything from The Ten Commandments to the endearingly cheesy blacklight decorations that turn cheap amusement-park attractions into spooky realms of mystery. However manipulative this climactic sequence may be, you can see how it might convince a better-than-this thespian to believe he can have some fun while earning that gigantic paycheck. As for what might draw Bloom and, briefly, Knightley back to the screen, doing nothing other than linking the first few movies to the ones Disney hopes will come? See the aforementioned paycheck.
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin R. McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush
Directors: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer
Executive producers: Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Joe Caracciolo, Jr., Terry Rossio, Brigham Taylor
Director of photography: Paul Cameron
Production designer: Nigel Phelps
Costume designer: Penny Rose
Editors: Roger Barton, Leigh Folsom Boyd
Composer: Geoff Zanelli
Casting directors: Nikki Barrett, Susie Figgis, Ronna Kress
Rated PG-13, 129 minutes