Once again we harken back to the Golden Age of Piracy (exact date indeterminate, because anachronisms allow for more fun), where a bold young man by the rather familiar name of Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) quests for Poseidon’s Trident, a powerful magical relic he believes will help him free his father from a terrible curse. He recruits the infamous pirate, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to his cause, along with “woman of science” Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who should be of use when it comes to unraveling the key clue, “a map no man can read”. He’s going to need their help, too, because not only must the motley crew contend with old adversary Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now commodore of a large pirate fleet, and the British Navy in the person of David Wenham’s officious officer, but a new supernatural threat: the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his crew, who want the Trident for their own purposes, and who have a particular grudge against old Jack.
It’s all very familiar stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. While 2003’s Curse of the Black Pearl was a surprise hit that not only reinvigorated the moribund swashbuckler genre but managed to make a decent movie out of a theme park ride, by now the films have settled into a familiar pattern, with minor variations for the sake of novelty. There’s a magical MacGuffin, a supernatural villain (the design work on Salazar’s crew is pretty neat, and their cannibalistic ship is a nice conceit), and a host of great character actors hamming it up to good effect (Kevin McNally, Martin Klebba, and Stephen Graham return, while the great Bruce Spence gets a turn as a colonial governor).
At the centre of it all is, of course, Depp’s rock star pirate, and you already know if his schtick is still working for you or not. Line by line and moment by moment he’s a good time for the most part. Captain Jack is basically a living cartoon character by this stage of the game – as his first big action sequence, robbing the bank of St Martin, demonstrates – so we’re never really worried or even too invested in what happens to him. The film tries to compensate this by digging a little too deeply into Sparrow’s unnecessary backstory, showing us why Salazar has vengeance on his mind by means of a de-aged Depp right out of the Uncanny Valley that looks like Tommy Hanson went undercover at a reggae club. Coming hot on the heels of the striking Young Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, it’s a really jarring bit of work, and out of place in what is nominally a tentpole movie.
Still, it’s a movie with zombie sharks, and that makes up for a lot. Dead Men Tell No Tales struggles in the broad strokes, being too long, too overstuffed, a little too complicated for its ultimate aim, and a little too enamoured of Thwaites’ and Scodelario’s bland central duo (it’s not their fault – they do what they can). But then you get things like Rush’s Barbossa re-imagined as an Epicurean pirate lord, or Golshifteh Farahani as a tattooed sea-witch, or Bardem chewing the scenery as Salazar, stabbing the deck with his rapier as he stalks his prey, and if that kind of thing doesn’t make you smile, you may have issues.
In the end, Dead Men Tell No Tales does what it says on the tin, and that’s fine. It’s a fun romp with the occasional high point and, yeah, the occasional low, but approach it with the right attitude and you’ll have a good time.