Let’s assume for a second that you’re Disney. Like, Ego the Living Planet, but a multinational corporation. Terrifying thought, I know, but bear with me. If you had the choice of making a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film, with all the baggage (and profit) attached, wouldn’t you? This is a film franchise based off of a theme park ride, after all. I suppose you could choose not to make this film, if you don’t like money. And remember, for the purposes of this exercise, you’re a sentient entertainment company, so you love money. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales exists because of this thinking, because someone pressed a button on a Rube Goldberg machine years ago that does nothing but squirt out content.
The stench of the inevitable is all over Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed as well as possible by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning. The series ostensibly ended two movies ago, with At World’s End, leaving Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner sentenced to live out all eternity on the Flying Dutchman, but not before he could impregnate his beloved Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). Good thing curses are not transmitted sexually.
What seemed like a tragic conclusion is now merely set-up for our latest installment. Will’s dull, earnest son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) is determined to free his dad (who now dresses like Brett Michaels from the band Poison with mold growing on his face) from his spiritual obligation and is on the hunt for the only man who can save him, Captain Jack Sparrow. His path crosses with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer sentenced to die because she’s a learned woman in an era of history where that meant you must be a witch. It’s an amusing enough nod to history’s barbaric attitudes around gender, but it’s also kinda weird since this is a universe where demons, witches, ghosts, mermaids, and monsters exist. Monsters like Javier Bardem as Captain Armando Salazar, a goblin dripping blood out of every available orifice who seeks the legendary Trident of Poseidon, which he hopes to use to free himself and exact revenge on Captain Jack.
Bardem has amassed quite a body of work playing demented, deformed baddies lately. It all started with Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, though his most unpleasant physical trait in that film was simply his distressing haircut. Then, there was old jawless Silva in Skyfall and whatever it was he was up to in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. Salazar is yet another grotesque in that same vein, though his physical issues are rendered through motion capture this time. Bardem obviously enjoys playing characters like this, lisping and slithering from scene to scene, slightly subverting the cinematic ideal of villainy with a series of small choices that add up to an unnerving performance. Unfortunately, the sheer complexity of making this ghastly vision come to life must have limited the number of scenes Salazar could appear in. He pops up occasionally to remind the audience that he’s evil, then we get another 40 minutes of magical mumbo-jumbo and meaningless set pieces.
An early action scene involves a bank heist and a team of horses dragging a building through a town square. It has nothing to do with the plot, but it does chew up plenty of screen time, stretching a plot that’s paper thin to epic proportions. This film has more MacGuffins and maps and Paul McCartney and coincidences than a John Wick movie has head shots. Captain Jack’s magic compass figures prominently, plus that trident, a book, a gem, and probably a rabbit’s foot or something I’m forgetting. It’s all prelude to an action spectacle that strives for pathos, but feels like more empty spectacle.
That’s not uncommon for this series, but what’s missing this time around is the central character. Captain Jack, as created by Johnny Depp, has always been less a hero and more a Loki-esque trickster character creating complications for the traditional protagonists. He’s not particularly good at anything, is perpetually drunk, and mostly averse to sincerity, unless the plot calls for him to get real in order to move things along. It’s sort of like if a Seinfeld reunion special were primarily about Kramer developing a scheme to play center field for the Yankees. Depp, who has been embroiled in a series of scandals since the last Pirates film, doesn’t come off as phoning it in as much as the material doesn’t require anything new of him. This is his You Only Live Twice — one adventure too many with no creative imperative for existing. The gags are stale and the action scenes lack energy.
The lone bright spot is Geoffrey Rush reprising his role as Captain Barbosa, blinged out and living the high life as a one-percenter pirate enjoying the spoils of his good fortune. Rush has been a steady presence throughout this franchise and has portrayed his character as the one, true, stereotypical pirate — down to his comically arch accent. When everything around him is so florid, it’s a welcome change of pace for the old “argh, matey” bluster that he provides. He’s a throwback to the days of pirate films before Depp injected rock-and-roll into the proceedings.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is something of a throwback, too. It looks backwards to the initial trilogy for its storyline and does little to shake up the formula of the series. It’s more of the same, though with less of the freshness that the first film offered. Of course, that’s what the Rube Goldberg money machine called for. A formula-bending genre film has now rigidly conformed into its own special formula, spreading its seed across the globe, like Ego, the Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. When you look at the money, how could you say no?