Plot is never the best part of a Pirates Of The Caribbean movie. It’s always some mumbo jumbo about maritime curses, lost treasure, and seafaring ghosts—and Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth entry in this long-running series adapted from a Disneyland ride, is in no way different. Returning to the basic formula of the three Pirates films directed by Gore Verbinski, in which Johnny Depp’s louche and campy Jack Sparrow played second banana to an insipid love story, Dead Men Tell No Tales finds the dipsomaniacal pirate trading away his magical compass—the one that leads anyone who holds it to what they need most—for a bottle of rum, thereby freeing a ghostly Spanish ship of the line from the Devil’s Triangle. The requisite dull courtship comes courtesy of Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters from the earlier films, and an orphan named Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario). Both are badly written and bereft of chemistry, but that’s how it has to be. All Pirates Of The Caribbean movies have their share of tedium and lard (Verbinski’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End was almost three hours long), but these are inseparable from the more irreverent and grotesque qualities that make these things fun. Their stronger moments foster a kind of surrealism that is specific to grossly over-budgeted blockbusters, with Sparrow looking like a silent slapstick comedian as he stumbles and sashays through the mayhem.
There’s nothing in Dead Men that comes within spitting distance of the Davy Jones’ Locker portion of At World’s End—a Samuel-Beckett-by-way-of-Chuck-Jones absurdist theater piece realized on a Hollywood effects budget—or suggests that the duo of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who previously directed Kon-Tiki, can match Verbinski’s pictorial eye. What it does have is a long, cartoonish chase sequence in which Sparrow’s crew drags an entire bank through a colonial town after trying to pull the safe out through the wall; a macabre set piece involving a guillotine; plenty of verbal gags involving dim-witted pirates; some relatively inspired effects, including a Ray Harryhausen-esque figurehead animated by magic; and a Paul McCartney cameo that not only doesn’t stink, but is actually very funny. (It helps that unlike in the case of Keith Richards, who cameoed as Jack Sparrow’s father in At World’s End and On Stranger Tides, the casting isn’t the whole joke, as the former Beatle gets to use his deadpan comic timing with dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Eric Idle’s mouth in a Monty Python film.) And there is the series’ tradition of visually interesting villains. Here, it’s Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a Spanish pirate-hunter who drowned in the Devil’s Triangle; in one of the movie’s more evocative special effects, his black hair and rotting uniform swirl as though he were underwater. He captains a supernatural shipwreck with a huge gash in its prow that can bend open like the toothy maw of a sea monster.
But then there are the two romantic leads, who have their own reasons for finding a fabled doohickey called Poseidon’s Trident (they both involve father issues, the thematic focus of this very special episode of Pirates Of The Caribbean) and succeed only in making the shortest movie in the series seem just as long as the rest. It’s not uncommon for critics to refer to Sparrow—the role that, once upon a time, gave Depp his first Oscar nomination—as the Pirates movies’ equivalent to Fonzie, the popular greaser on the ’70s and ’80s sitcom Happy Days who started as a breakout supporting character, became the excruciating focus of the show, and eventually got a spin-off series where he had a time machine and fought Dracula. Echoing the Fonz’s most infamous moment, Sparrow even jumps over a shark in Dead Men—a zombie shark, but a shark nonetheless. It’s a strange fact of the series: Depp has always been its top-billed star, but even Verbinski’s original Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl recognized that he was best used in moderation. Place the brunt of swashbuckling on his swishing shoulders, and you end up with the dull On Stranger Tides. But waste enough of the audience’s time with the adventures of a couple of uncharismatic dinguses, and Depp’s stage-drunk, innuendo-laced, cabaret-emcee shtick starts to creep back into being funny.