Yes, dead men tell no tales — but neither, really, do the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Rather than stories, the series, of which this 2017 entry is the fifth, offers an unpalatable mix of mincing slapstick, rote derring-do, ponderous CGI, whiskery sea-chanty mysticism, and dutiful action sequences whose only narrative purpose is to scramble the cast. (Every half hour or so, one set of characters is taken prisoner by the other set of characters, following a hard-to-follow scuffle.) Listen to kids chat about the films, and you won’t hear them say, I like the one where Captain Jack finds the fountain of youth. Instead, it’s all, I like the part with the mermaids. Daylong and bloated, the Pirates pictures have long been something like the treasure hunts at their centers — persevere and you may find some payoff.
The part with the mermaids, from the series’ 2011 entry, is excellent, as programmatic big-budget adventure filmmaking goes. Pirates scud through smooth blue-black waters in a dinghy, a lighthouse behind them, the uneasy stillness breached only when the visage of a supermodel slips up along the prow. Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Chicago) has never been the kind of director whose P.R. reps toss around the word visionary, but that sequence beats, in clarity and power, much of what Visionary Director Gore Verbinski chucked in our faces in the restless first three Pirates. Marshall’s Pirates, the fourth, looked to have been shot on sets and ships rather than inside computers. It also seemed intended to slim down a series that had grown tediously overstuffed, but still ran north of 130 minutes. The latest clocks in at 129, which means that someone involved is at least trying.
Also welcome: The proportions of good parts to not are more generous than they’ve been in years, though there’s still much too much of the usual undead sea dogs killing their prisoners and rumbling on about curses. (The villain this time is a cadaverous Javier Bardem, who’s nowhere near as scary as he is in films that call on him to play real people.)
Co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (the Kon-Tiki remake) smashingly execute a bank heist that plays like a mule-driven, 18th-century Fast & Furious setpiece. Several of the swordfights exhibit inventive stunt work and witty choreography, especially one involving a hangman’s noose and a whirligig guillotine. The mermaids of the previous film aren’t quite matched by this one’s zombie sharks, but the zombie sharks are the cold pizza of tentpole timekillers — you could do worse. Harder to beat is the sight of Geoffrey Rush, as Sparrow’s longtime antagonist Barbossa, perched upon a throne, surrounded by golden skulls, his hair curled like the Cowardly Lion’s after his Emerald City makeover. And at the climax, set in a trench beneath an ocean that’s been parted, Moses-style, we occasionally are given the chance to actually look at the wonders that the Pirates films’ quick-cutting hurlyburly has so often made a headachy blur.
Of course, those parts never cohere. They probably couldn’t anyway, because the story once again centers on Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, a character who at this point makes more sense in a Party City clearance aisle than on a multiplex screen. In Verbinski’s original Pirates, Captain Jack was the film’s spark but not exactly the hero: He was a source of comic chaos, a bleary-eyed horndog drunk who sashayed along like a Mel Brooks loon who has just instructed a straight man to “Walk this way.” While Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom handled the square-jawed heroics, a liberated Depp capered at the film’s edges like a Sergio Aragones sketch running along the side of a Mad magazine page.
By Marshall’s film, On Stranger Tides, the comic relief had been promoted to hero, with the effect of marginalia magnified to the foreground, an imp made to deliver expositional hokum. Imagine if Groucho cared deeply from the first frame about whatever the stuffed shirts at the opera care about — and then, in the course of helping them out, was tasked with explaining the plot. (Not that Captain Jack has ever been in the league of these comics.) If you’ve heard the dialogue Depp had to speak in Tides, you’ll probably find it less funny that, in this latest, he was reportedly fed his lines through an earpiece under his wig. “I have to walk up stairs for all this?” Jack complains in this installment, and it’s hard not to imagine the star himself asking that from the comfort of his trailer. Depp finds no fresh angles on Jack in this outing, and he doesn’t really seem to have looked — but at least the script never demands that Jack appear to give a shit about much.
So Jack remains the series’ heart as well as the void at its center, in a story that is something like what children might imagine when playing pirates themselves: a vague series of scrapes, betrayals and magic spells, all in pursuit of the latest barnacled tchotchke, in this case the trident of Poseidon. Kids, of course, would know better than to weigh down the fun with this chapter’s dynastic plotting — everyone, it seems, is someone else’s son or daughter, a gambit to make the stabbings and the pratfalls seem to mean something.
The marketing suggested that this time Jack might be the tchotchke, that the series might now offer us new characters searching for him, as The Force Awakens did with Luke Skywalker. Alas, Sparrow turns up something like 12 minutes in, in what is admittedly his best entrance since the original. As in the first film, second-banana heroes drive the plot, a drip of a swashbuckler dude and a peppery heroine who seems smart and capable at the start but will still need plenty of saving. Because everyone is forever getting captured in these movies, I wouldn’t complain about that angle if it weren't for the fact that, rather than save the day herself, Kaya Scodelario’s headstrong and self-actualized astronomer-adventurer spends most of the climax trying to wake up her nonentity helpmate (Brenton Thwaites) so he can do it. While dispiriting, her pleas and tiny slaps may be the only thing here that resonates in our world: They might signal to adults that the movie is ending and it’s at last time to wake up.