By: 3-Deep (Four Beers) –
There was once a period of time where 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was arguably my favorite movie, which makes my complete, wholehearted indifference towards Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fourth sequel to Disney’s theme park ride-based blockbuster film series, both fascinating and troubling. It has been a long 14 years between films one and five, where Johnny Depp went from handsome, if endearingly a little kooky, dream boy/critical darling to one of the biggest celebrities in the world (thanks to his work in these films) to a drunken fool/public embarrassment with performances that strike many filmgoers as near-parodies of his other, once-brilliant better work. Time hasn’t been kind to Depp of late. Time hasn’t been kind to the Pirates of the Caribbean films either. What was once a genuinely swashbuckling, highly entertaining, and enjoyably strange action-adventure fable has paved the way to a collection of convoluted, exhausting sequels, none of which capture the same magic found in the lean, compulsively delightful, agreeably pulpy, well-made, and well-acted original film.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was sporadically engrossing, if often bogged down by excessive plotting and a bloated budget. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, similarly, was a messy, overcompensating trilogy-ender that lacked most of the snappy wit and charm of the first movie through too many characters, too many settings, and too many plates trying to spin at once. It was simply tedious. If you remember anything from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, congratulations. You have a better memory than this writer. Although I was starting to doze off well before the closing curtains.
Which leads us to our latest installment, which is released a full six years after the last one yet, distressingly, discerningly, and depressingly, still suffers from many of the problems that plagued the other sequels. In fact, if anything, it might suffer from more issues — especially considering its overstuffed narrative, its overinflated allowance, and its lack of narrative coherence and general focus. It’s one of the year’s most expensive blockbusters, yet despite all its excess, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a classic example of too little, too late. A meandering, excessive, and overworked tirade of special effects and dullness, Dead Men Tell No Tales certainly isn’t the treasure fans seek to redeem this lost franchise. Abandon hope, ye who enter the theater.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) is back, whether you wanted him to or not. Still the bacchanalian fool we once knew before, Sparrow continues his lowly attempts at thievery and misgivings all around the seven seas, and in the midst of his latest escapade, which finds a simple bank heist turning into a town-destroying folly, Sparrow makes the acquaintance of Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites). The latter is the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), hoping to rescue his cursed father from his plight on the Flying Dutchman, while the latter is a whip-smart wannabe astrologist sentenced to death for her perceived witchery.
Henry needs Sparrow to help him free Will, while Carina is rescued by Jack and his crew, then comes along for the ride. Meanwhile, the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is not far from their trail, as he and his undead compadres are recently unleashed from their unholy entrapment when Jack unknowingly gives away the compass which held them in solitude. If that all sounds fairly confusing and complicated, I apologize. Dead Men Tell No Tales seemingly follows a fairly simple plot, yet there’s so much going on at once that it’s hard to make sense of anything. And that’s without talking about how Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is also quick on their tails, hoping to retrieve the Black Pearl, which is somehow kept inside Captain Jack Sparrow’s chest? Look, let’s stop while we’re ahead. I’m giving myself a headache.
There are sporadic moments of fun to be had in Dead Men Tell No Tales. The aforementioned bank robbing sequence, for instance, is entirely ridiculous and completely illogical at face value, yet with its (mostly) practical effects and highly choreographed stunts, it retains some of the lost silly goofiness of the original. Similarly, there’s a wickedly inspired guillotine visual gag that would make both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin proud in its dexterity and timing. Other than that, I’ll admit that the character design of Salazar’s undead crew of scallywags, with their assortment of several missing body parts and perpetually floating hair and bodies, was both visually compelling and genuinely pretty creepy. The gorgeous oceanside locations are, as per usual, gorgeous. Also, after the complete irreverence of On Stranger Tides, it’s nice to see some emotional stakes again — if merely as a one-time fan of this franchise and these characters. Do they earn those stakes? Hell no, but it’s nice to see a little bit of effort made, at least.
Something I admire more upon revisiting the first Pirates of the Caribbean is its simplicity. At 143 minutes, it’s certainly not short, but with its brisk pacing, its involving characters, engaging set pieces, and, most of all, its focused, compulsively entertaining, and sincerely well-crafted story, it moves like electricity. By contrast, Dead Men Tell No Tales is the shortest PotC movie yet, clocking in at 129 minutes, yet it feels almost twice as long. With its overly congested story, its plethora of characters, its various destinations, and its ongoing need to stuff as many lame wacky jokes as possible, much to the film’s detriment, it fails to capture that same nimble spirit which made the original film such an infectious delight. It’s soggy and overly demanding, expecting itself to do so much while never progressing the protagonists, the mythos, or the extended narrative in any fulfilling or meaningful ways. It’s not boring per se, but it lacks the consistent amount of fun that made the original film — even upon rewatches — such a wildly good time.
The Curse of the Black Pearl relied mainly on practical effects, only using CG when it helped the story. It’s the Christopher Nolan logic. By contrast, Dead Men Tell No Tales is overloaded with CG, which makes it impossible to connect to a majority of the environments. It only helps distance you further from the plot as well. There’s no real weight and gravitas to these scenes. Everything’s flimsy and disregards physics and logic completely. In a story that’s practically as overbooked as it is, it only emphases just how ballooned and overwrought these sequels became. The magic feels forced, and the flesh and blood characters feel secondary to the wizardry of the special effects team, which works endlessly to make you invested. But it’s all shambolic and overweight, lacking anything resembling honesty or humanity. The ship quickly sinks.
There was once a time when Depp’s buffoonery was lighthearted and fun. Those days are no longer with us. Whenever I review a film, I tend to separate the art and the artist unless the art calls upon the artist. If that makes sense. Essentially, if the actor’s performance doesn’t make me think about his real life, then I don’t feel the need to associate it with the film. With Depp, however, that’s nearly impossible.
Filmed close to his emotional/psychological breakdown and the end of his marriage, Depp’s sloshy, half-hearted performance as Jack Sparrow in this newest iteration deeply calls to mind his recent tabloid antics, which makes the experience of watching Depp play an aloof, stumbling alcoholic way less enjoyable. If Depp’s Oscar-nominated performance as Jack Sparrow in the first movie was Keith Richards at the height of his creative outburst, then Depp’s Sparrow in Dead Men Tell No Tales is Richards on a ten day bender, as he slouches around, mumbling words you can’t make out before he pukes in the sink for the fifth time this morning. There’s no enjoyment this time around. Sparrow is deeply troubling to watch now, and it doesn’t help that Depp simply isn’t putting his best foot forward anymore. Sparrow was once a character that Depp could play with his eyes closed. You wouldn’t know that from this film, though.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is similar to what I imagine watching Guns ‘N’ Roses performing today is like. Most of the major players are gone, or they’re simply bit players on the sidelines. The musicality of the first film is now overproduced and filled with too much background noise. Our Axel Rose, Depp as Sparrow, is a shell of his former self, and it’s embarrassing and painful to watch him try to retain some of that former glory. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is practically a classic by today’s Hollywood standards, and it was the movie that started their ongoing blockbuster trend. In contrast, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a wandering relic of a past generation, searching the seas for its purpose but never finding anything more than chaos and boredom, blasting at all cylinders. No amount of rum is going to make this one an engaging viewing experience, whether you’re a fan of the series or not.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time you feel uncomfortable/embarrassed for Depp’s stumbling ass.
Take a Drink: every time a joke lands horribly.
Take a Drink: anytime you find yourself in a moment of flickering fun.
Take a Drink: every time the screen is consumed by CG.
Do a Shot: when THAT cameo happens.
Do another Shot: when that other cameo happens.