Like the many undead, waterlogged creatures who harass its characters, the Pirates of the Caribbean series is cursed to unnatural life, the sort that extends soullessly beyond the point of death. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales wholly lacks the lighthearted spark and demented creativity that made Gore Verbinski’s original three films so much fun. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), once a puckish figure at the center of catastrophes of his own making, now lives in a perpetual state of blackout drunkenness punctuated by obvious pratfalls and slurred non sequiturs. It’s a pathetic, unmotivated image that Jack doesn’t shake even when he becomes excited for adventure. In the film’s only moment of self-reflection, he grouses about being called washed up by his disgusted crew, only to defiantly exclaim to no one in particular that he “hasn’t washed in years.” Yet in that moment of self-regard he inadvertently lets slip how the Pirates of the Caribbean films have grown less bad than stale.
Picking up a generation after the events of Verbinski’s At World’s End, Dead Men Tell No Tales follows Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), as he attempts to lift the curse placed upon his father to captain the ghostly Flying Dutchman. To that end, he naturally needs Jack’s help, though the pirate quickly finds himself the target of another ghost ship, this one headed by Salazar (Javier Bardem), a pirate hunter who fell afoul of a young Jack’s actions and remains cursed to a half-life lived entirely at sea.
This is the third time in five Pirates of the Caribbean films that such a conceit has been employed, and it’s the first marker of numerous callbacks that make Dead Men Tell No Tales feel more like a shoddy reboot than a continuation. Once again, the heroes must find a magical treasure that can undo curses, and they need Jack’s magic compass to guide them. Henry is every bit as joylessly handsome as his father, though Thwaites lacks the straight-man chemistry that Bloom had with Depp, thus preventing him from being a counterweight to the latter’s preening and ensuring that he becomes a helpless bystander to it. And amid all these filthy, sweat-covered men is an intelligent, self-sufficient woman: Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer whose ability to do math gets her sentenced to death as a witch—a literal throwaway joke from Family Guy that’s redundantly stretched out for 30 minutes in this film. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) even shows up to go through his usual self-serving frenemy maneuvers, leaving us to wonder what, if anything, here isn’t just a rehash of bits of business from the earlier films.
If the action itself isn’t a rehash that’s because it eschews the intricacy of Verbinski’s Rube Goldbergian set pieces for simple matters of size and scale. In Dead Men Tell No Tales, the action is big but straightforward: In an early scene, Jack’s crew plans to hijack a bank vault and inadvertently drags the whole bank off—a funny sight, yes, but one that never goes any further than the Terry Gilliamesque sight of an enormous building being yanked straight down narrow streets, barring a few pratfalls from Jack that scarcely deviate from the main action. Later sea battles, invariably shot in nighttime, reduce Salazar and his fragmented, decayed men to murky shadows, to say nothing of their semi-sentient ship, which loses all the eerie impact of the Venus-flytrap effect of its exposed frame ribs opening and closing over unlucky vessels. If Verbinsiki’s unwieldy but coherent sequences resemble the warped and original creations of a bright child messing around with a bunch of random Legos, Rønning and Sandberg’s rigid, functional scenes give the impression of having been schematically erected from a predetermined toy kit.
Nonetheless, the film’s biggest issue is the series’s continued focus on Jack, a character who’s only palatable as a chaotic supporting element. Depp’s performances are now front and center, and they consist of little more than a series of paroxysms half-heartedly strung together. And his is a spectacle that now looks particularly egregious when he’s bouncing off of two leads less than half his age. Jack was once a thoroughly weird, deceptively shrewd idiot savant, while now he’s more akin to the that uncle who always ruins Thanksgiving dinner. Depp’s perfunctory gestures and flailing pratfalls befit a film that brings the franchise’s theme-park roots full circle. Once these films delighted in their unpredictability, but Dead Men Tell No Tales is locked into a track, and its star speaks and moves in such irritatingly repeated gestures and phrases that he’s become his own animatronic recreation.