Fifth "Pirates" Film Finds Just Enough Wind In Its Sails

Here in 2017, it’s hard to convey the contemporaneous, spontaneous magic of 2003’s “Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.” Expectations for Disney’s theme park-based actioner were underwater; then it released to rapturous critical and commercial success, snagging not just $650 million, but superstardom (and an Oscar nomination!) for headliner Johnny Depp. The actor would toil no more under relative obscurity, having spent his twenties and thirties doing good work that went largely unnoticed by the public. (His second Tim Burton collaboration, 1994’s “Ed Wood,” remains a career high-water mark.)

Jump forward thirteen years – over three unexceptional “Pirates” sequels, a handful of dismal Depp starrers, and some troubling allegations of domestic abuse – and the shine is off both Depp and his flagship series. New entry “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was mounted before the aforementioned accusations, giving Disney no option but to see the project through. The result is certainly sullied by thoughts of its star’s alleged offscreen behavior, hampered by the increasingly mechanical nature of the series’ storytelling.

But there’s still something about its eye-popping brand of supernatural buffoonery that just plain works as escapism.

The story – another “Captain Jack Sparrow searches for a magical item while on the run from cursed pirates” yarn – is thoroughly unmemorable, utterly wasting Oscar-winner Javier Bardem (“No Country For Old Men”) as the villainous Salazar who isn’t half as compelling or tragic a figure as Bill Nighy’s baddie in films two and three. (Take heart, Davy Jones fans. If you’re patient enough there’s a significant nod to your favorite humanoid cephalopod to be found.) And just like in 2011’s “On Stranger Tides,” an injection of new blood comes off as calculated and try-hard. Wayward teen Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Orlando Bloom’s Will, and fledgling scientist Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) don’t imbue the narrative with much meaning – not until act three, at least – falling well short of the appeal of Bloom and Keira Knightley in the first three films.

So if the story and characters don’t work, what does? Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”) direct the hell out of this thing, drawing an exhilarating setpiece out of their hats every fifteen or twenty minutes. Whether it’s a brilliant dose of physical comedy involving a guillotine or a thrilling escape from undead sharks, the duo has crafted a very handsome film that lives up to and often supersedes the imaginative visuals of Verbinski’s sequels. If everything else about “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is table scraps, the visuals have plenty of meat on the bone, crying out to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

And don’t count out Johnny Depp the actor just yet. Jack Sparrow has become a model of too much of a good thing, but the actor isn’t phoning it in here, absolutely engaged in every bit of physical and verbal stupidity cooked up by writer Jeff Nathanson. Pay no mind to the rumors that the star had his dialogue piped in via earpiece. There’s no indication that he’s giving Captain Jack anything but his all, conjuring just enough of what made his 2003 star-making turn so memorable.

There’s also the series’ unheralded MVP Geoffrey Rush reprising Captain Barbossa. Recall one of the lone memorable moments of “Dead Man’s Chest”: Barbossa’s last second cameo teasing the character’s return for “At World’s End.” His presence in “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is another clear reminder of just how important he is to these films, a gigantic presence in his own right and a perfect foil for Jack. If this is indeed the 65-year-old’s victory lap as Barbossa, it’s a good one, seeing the character once again rise above the clumsy constraints of the plotting around him.

Moviegoers tired of Disney-fied swashbuckling likely won’t check in – perfectly reasonable. Very little new ground is being hoed here. But for anyone even remotely invested in these characters and this world, there’s no good reason to miss round five, no good reason to skip out on the handful of rollicking scenes the series’ shortest entry to date has to offer. Just make sure to stay through the end credits for a taste of round six, should it come to pass. There’s a glint of life in this franchise yet.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: May 26, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Espen Sandberg, Joachim Rønning
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Kevin R. McNally, Stephen Graham, Golshifteh Farahani, Kaya Scodelario, Brenton Thwaites, David Wenham
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content)