If the recent, already forgotten Internet meme of the rotting corpse of an unidentified giant sea creature came back miraculously to zombified half-life, it would like, sound, not to mention smell like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth overlong, over-directed, over-everything entry no one seems to want or care about with the exception of Disney (they have $.37 billion reasons) or Johnny Depp (in desperate need, once again, of a career revitalizer). To be fair, even as American moviegoers gave the last, underwhelming entry, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, close to a pass (relative to a typically bloated budget), international audiences fully embraced On Stranger Tides. In short, we have international audiences to blame for foisting one more, hopefully last entry in the theme-park-ride-turned-improbable movie-franchise and maybe one more after Disney counts international box-office returns from entry No. 5.
We don’t run into Depp’s character, Jack Sparrow, a perpetually drunk/stoned/whatever pirate captain and Class-A cosplayer, for the better part of 15-20 blissful minutes, something to be fair (again) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales does right: Sparrow is at his best when he’s not around or rather when he’s around, but in short increments, bumbling through one rollicking set piece after another, including the first, Keaton-Inspired action scene involving a mega-ton safe dragged through the streets of a Caribbean port town, destroying practically everything in its wake. The punchline? Every gold coin, every jewel, every piece of valuable property falls out of the safe during the extended chase, leaving Sparrow and his motley crew of brigands in poverty once again. His crew does what any disappointed pirate crew would do under the circumstances: They quit (Sparrow considers it a mutiny).
Initially, though, we get the obligatory prologue setting up Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’ Big Quest, a search for Poseidon’s Trident led by one Henry “son of Will” Turner (Brenton Thwaites). Henry wants nothing more than to break the curse that’s kept his father (Orlando Bloom) perpetually patrolling the Seven Seas (or something) as the captain of the Flying Dutchman. But where Will wants his son to drop the quest and get on with his life, Henry can’t let it go. Henry ends up aboard a British navy ship as a lowly sailor. After trying to warn the captain of impending doom at the end of the ghostly, zombified Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), Henry ends up in the brig. He also survives Salazar’s butchery of everyone aboard the ship if only because (a) Salazar prefers to keep one man alive to tell his tale and (b) because the script demands it (that’s why).
Eventually, Henry finds himself back on land, but back in a British naval prison, accused of mutiny and/or other high crimes and misdemeanors with the usual penalty (public execution). He escapes long enough to run into Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an accused witch. She’s actually an astronomer and scientist, but gender/social norms in the 18th century being what they were, anything she says or does is seen as a threat to British rule. Carina also happens to be on the hunt for a mysterious, never seen island that may or may not be connected to Poseidon’s Trident. Sparrow finds himself in prison too, captured after an afternoon of post-robbery debauchery. Henry thinks Sparrow is just the pirate captain to lead him to Poseidon. The plots merge when Salazar, a champion grudge-holder who blames Sparrow for his predicament, gives chase with the wavering aid of Sparrow’s one-time enemy-turned-occasional ally Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush).
And that barely scratches the surface of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tale No Tales’ overly convoluted plot and scattershot mythology. It’s heavy lifting either way, both for the characters who have to push the story forward while dumping all kinds of necessary exposition and for moviegoers who have to keep their attention spans focused solely on plot gyrations and not the latest sporting events or celebrity news. And with Sparrow back to playing second lead, that leaves Henry and Carina, essentially the new Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the new romantic pairing we’re supposed to care about, except, of course, we don’t. No knock on Thwaites or Scodelario. They obviously give their all and make for charming leads, but their romance lacks the love-hate friction/comical bickering that made the Will-Elizabeth romance a keeper across the first three entries in the series.
With the romance just one more box to check off in Jeff Nathanson’s (Tower Heist, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Terminal) script, that leaves Sparrow to keep moviegoers superficially engaged with his tired, clichéd shtick and when that fails – and it fails often – Barbosa’s bling-obsessed, two-faced pirate captain and Salazar’s vengeance-driven zombie-ghost to pick up the considerable slack. Barbosa does, but Salazar doesn’t. As a villain, Salazar is too one-note, too one-dimensional to make a lasting impression. His special effects team, though, deserve all the credit in the world for turning him into a memorable villain. With his constantly disintegrating features, shattered face, and independently waving hair (he looks like he’s underwater even when he isn’t). The same credit extends to the incredibly lavish, elaborately choreographed action scenes, though typical of the series, co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) pile on the set pieces to the point of mental, emotional, and ultimately physical exhaustion.