Getting this out of the way first: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is not a terrible movie.
It’s not great.
But it’s also not awful.
It almostkindasorta works. Parts of it. Of those parts, approximately *drags out wrist calculator* zero of them belong to Johnny Depp.
Depp is back for the fifth time as Captain Jack Sparrow, the role that gave him his first Oscar nomination, and boy is it a goddamned embarrassing mess. Dead Men Tell No Tales has Sparrow go through all the same narrative hoops he faced in the previous movies: a hunt for treasure, an enemy from his past, constantly shifting alliances, a daring escape from the gallows. The plot, such as it is, involves Sparrow teaming up with Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites), and plucky orphan Carina (Kaya Scodelario) to hunt down the Trident of Poseidon, a magical McGuffin that allows its wielder to rule over the seas and break any curse. Getting down to the nuts and bolts of it, nothing makes a ton of sense. You just have to throw your hands up and let the wacky wash over you.
A shambling mess of a story that’s riddled with plot holes and relies on coincidence wouldn’t be a dealbreaker—it’s not optimal, but I’m always down for a hefty dose of weird shit in the movies—if the whole thing weren’t hinged on the performance of Depp.
It’s baaaad, y’all.
In the first Pirates movie, Depp’s performance worked because it was slightly left of center, all swanning around and making these big expansive gestures and just generally being unpredictable and fun. In the years since Pirates first came out, Depp’s crawled up his own ass so far he went and found Tim Burton. His performance in this movie is all schtick. He slurs so much that I just plain couldn’t catch a good quarter of his dialogue. You remember that story about how doesn’t learn his lines anymore, and he showed up late to set and (reportedly) was fed his dialogue through an earpiece? Yeah. You can tell. Dead Men Tell No Tales is the natural endpoint of a craft that’s balanced more and more towards a lazy dependence on over the top mannerisms at the expense of actual acting. Well. At least it’s the endpoint until The Invisible Man comes out.
Depp’s not helped by a comedy-lite script where the idea of a funny joke is a running gag where a character says she’s a «horologist» and people interpret that to mean she’s a sex worker. Also, I’d be remiss not to mention a flashback scene where we see young Jack Sparrow, decades erased from Depp’s face by the magic of computers a la Captain America: Civil War (with Robert Downey Jr.) or Rogue One (with Carrie Fisher). Except this magic is of the black variety, because this shit is bar none the worst example of the ever-more-common de-aging phenomenon I have ever seen. It’s some uncanny valley creepiness. I know what Depp looked like when he was younger, and it wasn’t «plastic golem whose face looks like it’s about to somehow simultaneously melt and explode.» No one needed this. Just hire a young lookalike.
Aside from Depp… look, Dead Men Tell No Tales is fine. It’s an airplane movie. It’s dragged down by the presence of Thwaites, who makes absolutely no impression whatsoever. Scodelario fares slightly better as Carina, who’s very «Disney princess, Pirates-style.» She’s young and spunky and likes science and has a takes-no-shit attitude. I like the idea of her more than I like the character herself. Carina, unlike the great Elizabeth Swann before her, is fairly clunky and one-dimensional, and it’s hard to get invested in any romance subplot when one half of it is charisma vacuum Thwaites. Seeing Sparrow ogle Carina and, at one point, push her off a roof (onto a waiting hay cart, but still), isn’t (understatement alert) particularly fun given what we’ve come to know of Depp in real life. And Depp acting out a «once-great man, now washed up, gets his mojo back» character arc… yeah. Don’t really care for it! Sorry not sorry, Disney.
It’s not all bad. Geoffrey Rush is back as Sparrow’s off-and-on ally Barbossa, now a louche, even more extravagantly dressed than normal pirate king of the seas. He’s amazing, as he is in all the Pirates movies, even when everything around him is shit. The visual of a peg-legged Geoffrey Rush swinging into shot on a giant anchor is almost enough—almost—to make Dead Men Tell No Tales worth the cost of admission. Depp may be phoning in it, but Rush is a goddamned professional, and he puts in the effort and hams it up like he should. Clocking in similarly high on the drama scale is Javier Bardem as new villain Captain Salazar. As with Depp, you can’t understand a good chunk of his dialogue, snarling and heavily accented as it is, but fuck it, Bardem’s having a good time.
Look at this. I love it. It’s great.
Some of the visuals and action setpieces are entertaining. There are zombie sharks. Dead Men Tell No Tales was directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who scored a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination in 2012 for Kon-Tiki, about the attempt of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl to cross the Pacific in a wooden raft. It’s an excellent film, and proof that Rønning and Sandberg know their way around a seafaring adventure. There are glimmers of that in Dead Man’s Chest, but ultimately it’s dragged down by far too much dead weight.