WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Proceed at your own risk.
It’s been 6 long years since we last set sail on the high seas, but rest easy because Captain Jack is back! Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth installment of the Disney franchise, hit theaters last weekend and marks an upswing in a film series that’s been steadily declining with each release. Pirates 5 may not exactly be a ‘return to form’, but it is a big step toward righting the ship. It’s also just plain fun.
This new installment sees Johnny Depp reprise his role as the iconic Jack Sparrow, as well as return cameos for Orlando Bloom (Will Turner) and Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Swann). Geoffrey Rush also straps on the peg-leg as Captain Hector Barbossa, the perpetual antagonist from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Key newcomers to the franchise are Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner, the son of Will and Elizabeth, and Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth, who predictably is revealed to also be the child of a beloved older character. In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll just give you a hint: By the end of the film she identifies herself as Carina Barbossa. Good luck figuring that one out!
Let’s start with the newcomers, since we generally know what to expect from the old guard. First we have Henry Turner (Thwaites) who, as we learn early on, has dedicated his life to learning about every sea-curse known to man in order to find a way to free his father Will, who was dammed to eternity aboard The Flying Dutchman in Pirate of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Henry the character, much like early Will, was quite bland. Unfortunately Thwaites the actor lacked the charisma of Bloom, which only made it that much more noticeable. Thwaites wasn’t bad but the character was just plain forgettable.
The much more interesting newcomer was Scodelario as Carina Smyth, the beautiful astronomer/horologist/witch (probably). Scodelario turned in a much more intense and memorable performance than Thwaites and managed to regularly steal the scene from her counterpart. At times it did feel like the filmmakers were checking of a standardized ‘Strong Female Character’ trait list, but where Thwaites’ performance magnified the character’s shortcomings, Scodelario’s masked them. This division was also made obvious in the pair’s on-screen chemistry, or more specifically the lack thereof. Hopefully the two actors can develop a bit more of a rapport before the next installment.
The third major newcomer to the franchise is Javier Bardem as Captain Armando Salazar, known as The Butcher of the Sea. Unsurprisingly, Bardem stole the show as the ghost ship captain who spent his life mercilessly hunting down pirates on behalf of the Spanish Royal Navy before being tricked, and subsequently cursed, by a young mostly-CGI Jack Sparrow (we learn that getting rid of Salazar is how Jack earned both the nickname ‘Sparrow’ and also his first captaincy).
Salazar and his crew of ghost sailors are trapped inside the Devil’s Triangle until Sparrow trades his compass (you know, the item that literally drove the plot of the 2nd and 3rd installments) for a bottle of rum, which somehow frees Salazar’s crew to hunt down Sparrow. Salazar’s crew, like Barbossa’s in Curse of the Black Pearl, are humans turned undead who return to the living once the curse is broken. They also can’t walk on land, just like Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). But it’s okay because they’re ghosts instead of skeletons so it still counts as original.
While Bardem had the hands-down best performance of the film, the silver medal goes to franchise-veteran Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa. Since we last saw him, the living-turned-undead-turned-living-turned-actually dead-turned living pirate captain has taken command of 10 ships and rules the seas unchallenged. That is until Salazar is freed and begins wiping out Barbossa’s ships, which leads to the inevitable “Do we have an accord?” deal-making scene and then the even more inevitable pirates double-crossing each other scenes. Captain Barbossa is one of my personal favorites of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the character is interesting and entertaining without being too over-the-top, and Rush’s performances are consistently good. ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales‘ is no different as Rush’s Barbossa ends up being one of the highlights of the film and the best of the returning characters.
Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are hardly in the film, the latter having no dialogue that I can recall. The movie opens and closes with Bloom’s Will Turner, first as the barnacle-faced captain of the Flying Dutchman warning his young son to leave him to his fate, and last as the no-longer cursed ship captain reuniting with his son and wife. There isn’t much to discuss for these two, Bloom was solid but short-lived and Knightley literally just put on a dress and did a running hug, so let’s move on.
Finally, that brings us to Captain Jack Sparrow, or ‘Jack the Sparrow’ as Salazar calls him. In the years since the events of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Sparrow has been living on a grounded ship with some of his old crew and generally failing at the whole pirate thing (while trying to steal a safe from the bank, they accidentally steal the entire bank. Dragging an entire building through the streets? Your move, Dominic Toretto).
It’s made obvious that Jack has fallen deeply into his already deep alcoholism, including the aforementioned trading of the magic compass for booze. Sparrow’s pirating edge, much like Depp’s acting, has significantly declined over the years and left him in a rut. Luckily for him he runs into Henry and Carina and the adventure begins. Depp’s performance felt much less like watching the antics and adventures of the pirate Jack Sparrow, and more like watching Johnny Depp pretending to be Jack Sparrow. Yes I know that’s what acting is, but you should never notice that someone is acting and that’s exactly the issue with Depp in Dead Men Tell No Tales, you can tell he’s acting. Oh and he apparently had to have a studio-employed stalker due to his horrible attendance during filming.
Without going over too many more plot points, the basic story involves Carina, Henry, Jack, and later Barbossa using Galileo’s journal, aka ‘The Map That No Man Can Read’, to search for Poseidon’s Trident, a tool with the power to end all sea curses (including Will Turner’s and Captain Salazar’s). After multiple run-ins with Salazar and the pursuing British Royal Navy, they use a map in the stars to locate a small uncharted island which parts the sea itself to reveal the Trident.
The obligatory big fight scene ends with Henry destroying the Trident and undoing the curses, causing Salazar and his crew to become living men once more. Unfortunately for them, the parted sea becomes less parted and humans don’t have the ghost-luxury of immortality, so the crew is swiftly wiped out. Our heroes begin to climb the Black Pearl’s anchor to safety until they notice Salazar pursuing them and Barbossa, after a touching moment with Carina, sacrifices himself to take out the Spaniard and let the others get to safety. Overall the plot, how characters are introduced, and the pacing mirror that of Curse of the Black Pearl, adding another element to Bloom’s comment that this is a “soft reboot” of the franchise.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is far from a perfect movie and, like the three before it, fails to live up to the original. But that’s okay because it was a step in the right direction for the franchise, and after the mess that was On Stranger Tides that’s enough for me. It was a fun movie with entertaining action, lighthearted humor, and also moments of emotion; what more could you ask for from a Disney movie about pirates? The over-the-top and physics-defying action, along with Bardem and Rush, rescued what could have been just another mediocre movie sequel.
The fifth installment is definitely better than the fourth, and arguably the third (I personally enjoyed At World’s End more than most people). If the filmmakers can continue along the path they’ve started and somehow get more out of Depp and Thwaites, they could revitalize the franchise and bring back the excitement for one of Disney’s biggest properties.
Final Score: 6/10
P.S. – Oh and also Paul McCartney has a pirate-cameo and it’s super uncomfortable.