I’m a big fan of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but after seeing Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I thought to myself, “Yeah, I’m pretty good on Pirates movies for the foreseeable future. Don’t really need to know anything more about Jack Sparrow or go with him on any new adventures. I’m set.” Dead Men Tell No Tales is a franchise reckoning with its own exhaustion, pulling out all the stops to try and make a worthwhile story, but instead coming off like a drunk who’s tapping the bottom of the bottle for the last few drops of rum. Without Gore Verbinski’s giddy exuberance and bonkers ambition, Dead Men Tell No Tales is stuck trying to reverse-engineer the original with diminishing returns.
Dead Men Tell No Tales begins with Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who seeks to break his father’s curse. The way to do that is with the Trident of Poseidon, which gives the bearer total control of the seas. But he’s not the only one looking for it. Scientist Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is also seeking the trident. Meanwhile, the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) has broken free of his confinement in the Devil’s Triangle, and is seeking the man who cursed him, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Eventually, everyone is racing for the trident, with Sparrow alongside Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), Henry, and Carina, while Salazar and his ghost crew try to kill Jack.
To its credit, Dead Men Tell No Tales fixes the key mistake On Stranger Tides made by realizing that Jack is not a lead character. You need relatively normal people (in this case, Henry and Carina) to ground the story, and then you bounce them off Jack’s big personality. Unfortunately, Henry and Carina are no Will and Elizabeth. Thwaites and Scodelario have absolutely no chemistry to the point where I wondered if they were even screen tested together. Separately, Thwaites is still a bore, but Scodelario is good, having more of a fleshed out character and things to do even though the script isn’t entirely sure how to integrate her character (there’s an awkward attempt to do so late in the movie that rests entirely on coincidence).
Rather than understanding why the first three movies worked so well, Dead Men feels like someone trying to do a Pirates film from memory, but without understanding how the pieces fit together. And to be fair, some of those pieces will never fit right again. In 2003, Johnny Depp was on the cusp of the A-list, but he was still kind of an outsider with something to prove. He would lead movies, but they included oddities like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dead Man. In Curse of the Black Pearl, Sparrow, for all of his silliness, feels like a real character. In Dead Men Tell No Tales, he’s a parody of that earlier character, clearly cashing a paycheck and left adrift with no interesting arc even though the movie goes out of its way to give him an origin story.
If you were running through a checklist of things a Pirates movie might need, Dead Men Tell No Tales, would technically have them, but the film only works in fits and starts. There’s a fun bank heist that shows a film with a budget (unlike the cheapish On Stranger Tides), but the big climax of the film is just characters hanging off a CGI anchor. There’s no sword fight. There’s no ship battle. Those appear sporadically in the movie, but they don’t have any stakes because we long ago lost interest in these characters if we ever cared about them at all.
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies had a good thing going focusing on the stories of Jack, Will, and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), and it was enjoyable to see how it played out over the course of three movies as Will and Elizabeth drastically changed from where they started and even Jack had moments of surprising sacrifice. But that’s all gone now, and while the pieces remain, there’s no life left in this franchise. It should have sailed off into the horizon ten years ago. The Pirates’ life is over.