Time to head to port. Now.
With its “final adventure” tag, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales glows with a compelling enough reason to re-rendezvous with Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”), omitting how it will reward attendance with hollowed-out booty. Though ridding the stifled scope and static action of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is truly a kindness, the film presents a new issue graver than juggling countless plots: A case of “whose story, and in turn, whose character is central anyway?”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales starts out clear enough with a young Henry Turner (Lewis McGowan, “Rillington Place” TV series) promising to free his father, Will (Orlando Bloom, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”), from the Flying Dutchman once he has obtained the curse-undoing Trident of Poseidon. While the boy searches for Sparrow (and grows into Brenton Thwaites, “Gods of Egypt”), per his father’s request, he recruits Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”) — whose knowledge of star-reading and time-measuring got the small-minded howling “witch” a death sentence — to help in his Trident-related search. Disney seems to be pulling a “nouveau Will and Elizabeth” act with this duo, and under that guise only Carina passes since Scodelario exudes as much fire and charm as her predecessor (Keira Knightley). Thwaites, meanwhile, extends his track record as the weakest link of insert-project-name-here with another trapped-at-wisecracking performance that fails to clear his on-screen pirate’s ankle-high bar of expressiveness and chemistry-making.
As for the little bird that gave this franchise its billion-dollar aura, he is being hunted by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, “Skyfall”), a ruthless pirate exterminator (highlighted by his other moniker, “El matador del mar”) who perished after being “guided” into one rocky trap by a youthful, yet-to-be-captain Jack (Anthony De La Torre, “Lords of Chaos”). This conflict, in most promos and markets outside U.S. (where the film is titled as “Salazar’s Revenge”), has the case and cogency to take center stage, but is bewilderingly treated as a subplot until wrap-up time. Even more baffling is screenwriter Jeff Nathanson’s decision to make Carina the film’s driving force rather than Henry for most of the film, making a second-introduced character rather than the story-starter the more investable person on-screen.
In an attempt to fuse mysticism into the proceedings further, there are also the government-controlled spell-caster Shansa (Golshifteh Farahani, “Paterson”), whose tattooed appearance is the sole memorable feature, and series’ regular Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, “The Book Thief”), whose presence is needed for a revelation that without distractions would have had more impact. Since there is already plenty of noise from the numerous fanciful ruckuses directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have concocted, Nathanson’s additional characters, emotions, beats and subsequent spectacles all turn up muffled.
And the thought of a scripting downsizing (Nathanson receives sole credit here) would equal to added awareness of the tale’s bearings and added salt to a tale’s worthiness.
There are some consolation prizes, thankfully, though not enough to offset the plot’s ample givings of coarse sand. With previous — and decidedly more enlightening — seafaring experience a la “Kon-Tiki,” Ronning and Sandberg revive the wonder of being on the big blue that the last installment drained. They turn out to be adept with shore-based set pieces as well, sprinkling delight onto a period version of the safe heist from “Fast Five” and a guillotine that struggles to hack Jack.
Speaking of Jack, though Depp’s performance shows no sign of phoning in, it loses a bit of spotlight to Bardem who chips a bit of palpable menace into Salazar, both alive and “dead” forms. As with the first three “Pirates” films, computer work is plenty and expected, though things feel fresh again here with Salazar’s incompletely rendered crew and partially decomposed pet sharks, the latter having a debut too fleeting to be satisfying and extraneous in retrospect.
In terms of farewells, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has the pomp of a tentpole production though the core gears that made it so are, regrettably, seen as circumstantial. But is it truly a goodbye when a post-credit scene suggests otherwise? All one should know about this installment is that it is a nightmare, one that can bleed into reality if the next “Pirates” downplays the idea of building a seaworthy story.
Or just be at anchor.