Isn’t it generous of the folks at Disney to bestow upon us, the humble ticket-buying public, another chance to contribute to actor Johnny Depp’s wine-of-the-month club fund by churning out a fifth adventure into the diminishing returns of its Pirates of the Caribbean saga. And, by returns, I am not talking about the gazillions of gold doubloons collected at the box office—$3.7 billion worth worldwide to be exact.
Instead, it’s that sinking feeling that has been growing with each victorious trip into blockbuster overkill in the shape of distracting 3-D gimmickry, eardrum-endangering sound, chaotic action set pieces, CGI spectacle (warning: be prepared for ultra-fake ghost sharks) and the debasement of such top-tier stars as Bill Nighy, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and, at this point, Javier Bardem that the studio needs to just drop anchor and move on.
True, this is the most successful series of films based on a brand-name theme-park attraction—not exactly a matter of pride, however, given that neither 2002’s The Country Bears nor 2015’s Tomorrowland were deemed worthy of sequels by the House of Mouse. But what was entertaining, witty and innovative in 2003’s first, The Curse of the Black Pearl—I always loved those pirates who were seen as skeletons when struck by moonlight—now looks like “been there, done that.”
This time around, the subtitle—and there’s always a subtitle—is Dead Men Tell No Tales. I get a vicarious feeling whenever a movie’s title is actually spoken out loud by a character and Bardem’s ghastly Captain Salazar—a zombiefied enemy of Johnny Depp’s repeatedly soused swashbuckler Jack Sparrow whose re-awakened ghoulish Spanish crew is determined to kill off every pirate on the high seas—doesn’t let anyone down. As this leader of a gang of buccaneers in various degrees of decay explains in between the gushes of blood oozing from his mouth, he always leaves one survivor to pass along his legendary exploits. Why? Dead men tell no tales.
Norwegian directing duo Joaquim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”) together with screenwriter Jeffrey D. Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”) seem to be addicted to turmoil. They even crowd the IMAX-imized screen with no fewer than six schooners vying for the spotlight—which leads to an excess of captains, too. I half-expected that the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria would make cameos. Instead, Paul McCartney—you know, the cute one—takes over token rock icon duty from Keith Richards as Sparrow’s oddly cheery incarcerated uncle.
What else is new, you might ask? With Depp’s tipsy high-jinks at half-mast in the funny department these days—a running gag about the term “horologist” gets a real workout—two fresh and younger faces have been brought on board. Boy-band-bland Australian actor Brenton Thwaites is Henry, the grown son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, who return briefly after skipping out on No. 4).
He eventually pairs up with Carina Smyth (Brit actress Kaya Scodelario of The Maze Runner), an orphaned self-taught astronomer whose smarts get her pegged as a witch. They pair with Sparrow in looking for Poseidon’s trident so Henry can break the curse that has bound his father and eventually run across another old mate, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, who once again rises above the busy chases, sword fights and loud calamities simply by being subtle rather than obvious). That the newcomers don’t engage in a romance is as original as Dead Men gets.
Much of the two-hour-plus running time is eaten up by elaborate stunt-filled centerpieces. One has Sparrow repeatedly avoiding a guillotine’s blade by the narrowest of margins while Carina manages to avoid death by hanging. Another goes all Cecil B. DeMille with the parting of the ocean while the previously mentioned ghost sharks lack “Jaws”-like snap. Meanwhile, an ill-timed “I do” nearly gets an appalled Sparrow wed to a plump elderly widow with a massive case of scabies. At some point, he acquires a mischievous capuchin monkey.
The most ridiculous though satisfying sequence involves Sparrow’s entrance that could double as a metaphor for the entire movie. A new bank is being celebrated on the isle of Saint Martin and the ceremony revolves around a giant safe. Once opened, Jack is found inside taking a nap atop stacks of money as well as someone’s wife. He basically was supposed to pull off a robbery and winds up accidentally stealing the whole building instead. Alas, once the pursuit runs its course, most of the riches have been emptied out onto the streets.