The past year of damning PR for star Johnny Depp certainly makes Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales a more complicated watch. For better or worse, I must cop to a general ease with putting an artist’s real life transgressions out of mind while I’m watching his or her work. But it feels as though the latest installment of Pirates is damn near intent on reminding you that Depp is supposedly, as we’ve heard with increasing frequency, no picnic behind the scenes.
The story opens with a shot of Jack Sparrow sleeping one off in the middle of a heist job, a misstep that earns him the ire of his crew—familiar. They lament the recognizable degradation in his talent and work ethic, even flashing back to a memory of a younger, more promising Jack to hammer home the depths of his decline—relatable. And while his latest episode of rampant disregard is instantaneously judged the last straw, it is just as quickly brushed under the rug so that the team may milk his presence for yet another easy paycheck—way too close to home. (And maybe I’m just indulging at this point, but Jack’s gargantuan wig sure seems perfectly tailored to cover up an earpiece.)
The thing is, these distractions actually color Dead Men Tell No Tales with the kind of intrigue and thematic valor for which it is desperately wanting. In lieu of a parable for Depp’s career and reputation, Jack Sparrow is without an arc, or really so much as a motivation, in his fifth cinematic adventure. Not exactly helping matters is the fact that the characters wedged in to take the emotional wheel from Jack and his original sidekicks, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, are dull as dishwater.
The pair comprises Will and Liz’s grown son Henry (Brenton Thwaites), who has traversed his entire wasted life to free his estranged father from the curse that keeps him confined to the bottom of the sea, and Carina (Kaya Scodelario), an orphan who loves science. And who talks about how much she loves science. A lot. (Read: she doesn’t spend quite so much time talking about science itself, just about the fact that she’s super into it.)
Not quickly enough do Henry and Carina’s quests intertwine, as do they involve the aimless Jack Sparrow and his fair-weather crew. Also roped into the action is Barbossa (returning champion Geoffrey Rush), on Sparrow’s tail at the behest of the hot new ghost pirate in town: Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Oh, and the British Navy finds themselves involved from time to time, though I’d be hard-pressed to recall exactly how they factor into things or what ultimately happens to them… if anything.
Amid this hodgepodge of revenge missions, quests in curse-breaking, and treasure hunts for a mysterious trident that can’t go two minutes without being name-checked, a few bits of genuine interest do come into play. Though not as masterfully executed as any the Gore Verbinski-directed Pirates’ action material, Dead Men Tell No Tales does pack a few set pieces that border on delight. Namely: The open bank heist, though eventually sluggish and repetitive, and a later sequence involving Jack Sparrow’s head and a guillotine gone haywire. Better still is the eventual subplot that ensnares Barbossa, though due less to any earned emotional resonance (this story begins well beyond the film's halfway point, for goodness' sakes) than to the fact hat Geoffrey Rush is one hell of a character actor.
In fact, Rush is largely what keeps Dead Men Tell No Tales afloat in the company of tangled mythology and a paralyzingly juvenile sense of humor. (I know these movies are meant for teens, but even teens--the worst kind of humans--deserve better than these jokes.) Luckily, he does command a fair deal of screen time, paired first with Bardem's ghost pirate Salazar (whom Barbossa is totally freaked out by, even though he himself was a ghost pirate, like four movies ago!), then with Jack and the kids. Unfortunately, things dip in interest and urgency whenever sights are shifted elsewhere, largely because the movie seems satisfied to just force its characters to do stuff without actually figuring out much of who, what, or why they are in the first place.
The meaninglessness of Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn't just undercut its emotional value, but also its fun. So hollow are Henry Turner, Carina, and at this point Jack Sparrow that there's not nearly as much joy as there should be in watching them run amok across the land and sea. There is something interesting in how reminiscent Dead Men Tell No Tales' Jack Sparrow seems to be of Depp's offscreen offenses, but even that wares thin after a while.
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.