Just Keep Swimming

'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales' Review: Some Moments of Treasure Don't Stop Movie from Going Down a Well-Beaten Path

Four Star Rating: **½
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush
Director: Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg
Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson
Story by: Jeff Nathanson & Terry Rossio
Based On: Pirates of the Caribbean by Walt Disney
Based on Characters by: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, Jay Wolpert
Composer: Geoff Zanelli
Cinematographer: Paul Cameron
Editor: Roger Barton & Leigh Folsom Boyd
Genre: Adventure, Action, Fantasy
Rated: PG (Canada)/PG-13 (US) - Frightening scenes, violence, some mature content, not recommended for young children
Release Date: May 26, 2017
Run Time: 129 minutes

One of the biggest flaws in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, was trying to make the popular Captain Jack Sparrow into the lead character and the emotional force driving the narrative. Johnny Depp always got top billing in this franchise, but his Sparrow character was there for comic relief and be the roguish support that kept things unpredictable. The heart of the story was always about Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (together directed international hit, Kon-Tiki) along with screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (as well as Terry Rossio who get a story credit) recognize the importance of having more grounded characters with clear motives to anchor the story. Also in a sign of digging into the series' past to try to keep going forward, those beloved characters are crucial to the plot once again (but without the joy of them being in much of the movie).

The story starts with a young boy rowing out into the ocean and then plunges himself in with the help of being tied to heavy rocks. The sinking into the deep gets him on what appears to be a shipwreck, but we learn is actually the Flying Dutchman. Fans of the series will know this ship is now captained by Will Turner, which marks Orlando Bloom's return but fans should know it is not much more than a cameo. The boy is the revealed to be Will's son Henry Turner, and like most children, isn't a big fan that his dad only shows up one day every decade and now wants him back home. We learn that there is only one way to break the curse, which is to the find and destroy Poseidon's trident, and for some reason, the only way to find it is with the help of Sparrow (well, I know the reason, because Jerry Bruckheimer says he can't do a Pirates movie without Depp).

With the prologue out of the way, we zoom to nine years later, Henry has grown up to be Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent) who is jumping from ship to ship in an effort to track down Sparrow. We also learn that a ghoulish undead former pirate hunter in Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem - No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, The Counsellor) and his equally ghoulish crew is also wanting to find Sparrow, but more in kill him for revenge variety of meetings. Salazar's first appearance is especially delightful not only because Bardem oozes charisma and seems to be having fun chewing up scenery as the constantly dripping from the mouth ghost, but he also does that delightful thing of quoting the movie title by saying 'Dead Men Tell No Tales' when explaining why he always allows one crew member to survive his slaughter. Of course Henry eventually does find Sparrow and they are also joined by Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario - Moon, The Maze Runner) who is a brilliant amateur astrologist who has those pesky red coated guards after her because being a smart women must mean she is a witch. As well, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech, all those Pirate movies) is back hunting down Sparrow after he makes a deal with Salazar.

A story about trying to reunite Will and Elizabeth is digging up treasure that was already been spent. The characters had a satisfying pay off in At World's End, with the stinger being a poetic classic send-off. I get in the real world that once a decade is a brutal way to build a healthy relationship, but there was a classic romantic legend feel to it. Even if seeing them again brings nostalgic warmth, it turns out to be one of the many times the movie relies heavy on Pirates past well-used tricks.

It is further hurt that Thwaites doesn't have the charisma or presence to earn his lead role. Henry lacks passion, conviction and urgency on what has been his life mission of rescuing a loved one. It is hard to be invested in the major point of the movie if the hero doesn't seem obsessed and driven by it. There is also supposed to be a romantic tension between Henry and Carina, but the two stars have a chemistry of distant cousins or former acquaintances in the third grade that haven't seen each other for 30 years. Carina does get to be a strong and independent female, and she has purpose for wanting to track down the trident, but you cannot escape the curse of being underwritten and existing for the sake of a female cast quota.

The biggest performance disappointment is Depp, whose seems to have little life or energy left to give Sparrow and is just going through the pay check routines. After five movies, he has become well-worn and predictable, and most of shtick here is eye-rolling and tedious. Depp is still a talented actor when he is motivated and in the right role, but that no longer seems to be case with this franchise. On the other hand, Rush brings an understated and nuanced performance that makes the often villainous Barbossa into a sympathetic character.

It is appropriate a movie on it fifth go around has a prevailing theme about how one is tied and driven by their past. Salazar's has his obsession with revenge against Sparrow, Henry and Carina are driven by reconnecting with their lost fathers, and Barbossa wrestles with how his past actions have shaped him. Barbossa's story is the most subtle but Rush's gentle layered work gives it the most emotional heft and grounding.

The wacky occult driven mythology of Pirates has always been fun even if convoluted. Golshifteh Farahani is wonderfully creepy as the scenery chewing sea witch, Shansa and is an entertaining way for exposition to set up the relationships and curses. Ronning and Sandberg channel Gore Verbinski with imagery, visuals and set pieces that embody the atmosphere and mood of a dark fantasy world set in a historical time period. Composer Geoff Zanelli blends the classical score with new twists that amplify big moments including a chilling score for Salazar. It remains an immersive world that is both disturbing and full of whimsy. Though the 3D did make a few night scenes rather murky, and if you can avoid it, go for the cheaper ticket.

The charm of the series has been the big action sequences, but this time around, there is often a stink of trying too hard to top what has been done before that results in things feeling more like gags from the old Looney Tunes series. We are introduced to Jack Sparrow who is literally stealing a bank with the building being pulled down the street by a group that is riding horses, The sequences has a few fun stunts and visuals interspersed, but as a whole feels hollow, as if something pitched in a corporate meeting rather than coming together organically. The action suffers most from the fact that after seeing so many lively sequences in past movies, it now feels rote and routine to see Sparrow make another daring escape from death this time by rolling around tied to a guillotine or is grasping too much for something shocking like Sparrow riding an undead shark.

The big final climatic battle has the Pirates charm and one of the major highlights of the picture as Ronning and Sandberg are able to create special effects chaos while giving time to each individual character. There is some heartfelt pay offs to the emotional simmering stories and some characters are able to make major decision with real stakes. Most big blockbusters can make loud and colourful explosive finales, but it take adept directors to use it to tell the story and keep the humanity. The most satisfying part is that the story comes to a real resolution and each character gets some form of closure rather than resorting to leaving it open ended for sequels. You get an entire story told, even if it has a little too much familiarity.

Of course, there is a stinger at the very end of the credits and that is where the sequel setting takes place. A character from an older and better Pirates movie returns, and I had to bury a giant groan. The franchise seems to be leaning heavy on nostalgia to try to keep things going. It is pretty clear the time has come for this series and its characters to sail away for good.