Big Picture Big Sound

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Review

By Lora Grady

Dead In the Water

There's a moment in the middle of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" when tipsy pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, "Black Mass") and brainy heroine Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials") are tied up and awaiting execution, surrounded by an angry mob. "Quiet!" Carina hollers as she's trying to protest her sentence, and the startled mob falls silent. The next few seconds are a palpable relief, the first quiet spot in a film that up to that point has been a wall-to-wall assault on the senses - and not in a good way. Sadly, the peace is short lived.

This fifth entry in the series that began with an improbably engaging turn by Mr. Depp in 2003's "POTC: Curse of the Black Pearl" is ready to sink under the weight of too many special effects, too much noise, and a lead performance that's curdled into a low-effort throwaway. "Tales" opens with a harebrained robbery attempt that sees our inebriated hero tottering improbably atop a building that's being towed by galloping horses across a town square (don't even try to imagine how they got to that point). It's distractingly entertaining but also grossly calculated, as though the writers were looking past the film itself to the inevitable Disney World theme ride or videogame tie-in.


Mr. Depp's perpetually drunk Jack Sparrow manages to survive this harrowing opener. He also skips out on the aforementioned death sentence thanks to Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, "Gods of Egypt"). Young Henry is the son of characters played in earlier films by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, both of whom made the wise choice to appear only briefly in this outing. Henry's dead-set on breaking the curse that trapped his father on a ghost ship at the end of "POTC: At World's End" and for that he'll need a legendary artifact known as the Trident of Poseidon. Fate brings Jack, Carina, and Henry together, and they set off in search of the Trident.

The bright moments in this otherwise fairly by-the-numbers plot involve Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men") as vengeful Spaniard Captain Salazar, a ghost captain helming yet another ship full of cursed sailors, and Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa, who in prior installations has survived a curse and come back from the dead (honestly, why does anyone go to sea in this series??). Both bring to the proceedings an energy and sense of fun that's missing from Mr. Depp's surprisingly lackluster performance. Mr. Rush ("The Daughter") entertainingly navigates his shift from villainy to a sort of redemption and earns a few heartfelt moments along the way. Mr. Bardem rages and menaces, ultimately lending more heart to his character's vendetta against Jack than this outing may warrant. His heavily-CGI'd appearance is genuinely creepy; and the musicality he brings to the words "Jack Sparrow!" spitting them out like he's invoking his own curse, may actually be worth the price of admission.

For his part, Mr. Depp takes what made his character appealing in earlier iterations and dials it up to 11, with the incongruous result of dampening the impact. Here Jack Sparrow sways dangerously at every turn, mumbles to the point of incoherence, and seems a second or two behind the action at all times. The effect was more intentional and thus fresh and charming in earlier films; here it feels lazy, throwing off punchlines and making the action hard to follow. For all we know this might be the funniest, most clever of all of the "POTC" movies (just kidding; it isn't) but the dialogue is gargled and swallowed then buried under layers of background sound, so many lines are completely lost. And make no mistake: this is a distractingly noisy movie. Timbers creak and groan during shipboard shots, weapons clash alarmingly through the many melees, and extras rhubarb enthusiastically in the background of any scene calling for more than three characters.

A brief flashback to the story behind the Salazar/Sparrow feud provides an instructive contrast. Here, aided by some quick virtual de-aging sleight-of-hand, a fresh-faced Jack flits from rigging to yardarm, exulting in his freedom as he leads the pursuing Salazar's ship into the cursed (of course!) Devil's Triangle and exhibiting some of the energy that's lacking elsewhere. Other exciting moments include Salazar's ghostly crew pursuing Jack, Henry, and Carina by racing across the surface of the waves, and a parting of the sea that's triggered by the discovery of the sought-after Trident. But these are few and far between, and weighed down by other, poorly scripted passages where characters blurt out unwieldy chunks of information in order to move the plot forward. Ms. Scodelario is tasked with several of these and does her best to soldier through, but it's a losing battle. (It is worth noting that one such moment, in which Carina explicates by shouting, "Because I'm not only an astronomer, I'm also a horologist!" might sink without a ripple if not for the insane popularity of the "S-town" podcast.)

"POTC" probably ought to wrap up with this entry - well, it likely should've wrapped several chapters ago, but that ship has sailed. Mr. Depp's heart hardly seems in it anymore, and there doesn't appear to be much more story to wring out of this concept. Disney isn't likely to heed this advice, but it's offered anyway: when it comes to "Pirates of the Caribbean" on the big screen, it's time to abandon ship.

What did you think?

Movie title Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Release year 2017
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary The latest - and with any luck last - movie in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series is a noisy assault on the senses. We hope the foley crew made out like bandits on this one.
View all articles by Lora Grady
More in Movies
Big News
Newsletter Sign-up
Connect with Us