Before Disney owned the rights to the giants of Marvel and Star Wars, they found their fill of action in the 2003 hit Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Loosely inspired by a theme park attraction, the film made pirates cool again, and gave us a fantastic new anti-hero in Jack Sparrow. After a solid trilogy it returned with an iffy fourth film, and then disappeared for some time. But the merry crew of pirates have returned for one last adventure on the high seas in Dead Men Tell No Tales. Marketed as the last in the franchise, can the series end on a high note?
Like all Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the central narrative tends to jump around various different sub plots and character motivations, intertwining into a mess that somehow ends up on the one path, all more often than not centred around a mythical object. Here, our new hero Henry is trying to find Poseidon’s Trident, which is said to be able to break any curse laid upon a man. The bread crumbs leads him to find a past his prime Jack Sparrow and the astronomer Carina Smyth, both who have found themselves on the other side of the law. Also, a ghost pirate is after Jack, and Barbossa can’t help but get mixed up in the story because he’s just too popular to keep down.
Dead Men Tell No Tales ticks all the boxes that you’d expect. It has the betrayals, the mythical forces that leave ships destroyed and the long stretching list of side characters you recognise but can’t remember their names. It’s all passable, but if you’re looking for any real meat on the bone to make this movie stand out the pickings are kind of slim, and everything is done better in the series already. The villain isn’t as dynamic as Davy Jones, and the story is far more captivating in Curse of the Black Pearl. The action scenes are decent, it’s always fun to see ships getting blown up and Salazar’s ship has a visually awesome way of disposing of enemies. The movie lacks any real head to head sword fights, but some of the set pieces themselves deliver.
Quite surprisingly, the weakest character in the movie is probably Jack Sparrow. One of the catalysts for the success of the first movie, the franchise has leaned on its captain throughout each movie but by now it feels like Johnny Depp is playing a caricature of himself. It eases off as the story unravels, but for about the first half of the movie it feels like someone imitating Depp’s performance, and rather poorly at that. The direction feels like a conscious choice based on Sparrow’s circumstances at that point in the story – especially since it does get better as time goes on – but it still feels awkward and rather uninteresting. Credit to the movie though, young Jack Sparrow is one of the more impressive attempts at de-aging a star yet, and the flashback as a whole is a nice reminder for what made Jack Sparrow so captivating in the first place.
Much like in the first movie, a lot of focus is on the two young lovers-to-be, only in this case it’s not Elizabeth and Will but Carina and Henry. Henry’s story especially offers the framework for the film as a whole, and honestly the performances offered here by Kaya Scodelario and Brendan Thwaites help to keep their characters engaging. Brendan’s on screen presence reminds me of Orlando Bloom in the first movie, but with enough of a twist to define Henry in his own right. Carina is an interesting character that gets bogged down by the running joke that she must be a witch because she’s smart. The joke has its moments but becomes a prerequisite for every time a character meets her (and she meets a lot of people). When she’s allowed to actually show her intellect and personality, she works quite well.
Javier Bardem’s performance as Armando Salazar helps to give the movie a signature feel, especially since the three protagonists mirror the first movie’s leads quite heavily. The Pirates franchise has generally had some pretty well crafted antagonists, and Bardem continues the trend. Salazar demands your attention every time he’s on screen thanks to some creepy CGI work and some great albeit over the top non-verbal acting. He’s a little hard to understand at times, but you’re never at a loss for his intentions, so the message is still coming through loud and clear.
Dead Men Tell No Tales simply feels like yet another Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It has its funny moments and some cool looking action scenes, but the only real unique factor to this movie compared to the others in the franchise is that its clearly designed as a send off. The movie wraps up some franchise long plot points and character arcs, and any attempts to do another would feel even more so like a pointless cash in than the previous two movies. In that sense, the movie is worth seeing for fans of the series since it does serve as the final chapter. But in ten years it wouldn’t be surprising if people were confusing which events happened in which movie, because the majority of this movie is fun but pretty forgettable.