Despite my somewhat reserved feelings toward the ‘Pirates’ franchise, I found myself inexplicably drawn toward the latest — and presumably last — entry: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Maybe it was nostalgia for the first movie, maybe it was the promise of Javier Bardem’s turn as vengeful ghost with a serious vendetta against Jack Sparrow, but I was actually anticipating this movie in a way that I hadn’t any of its predecessors.
Yet the closer to release the new movie got, the more nervous I became about the version of it that was releasing in theaters. From the obviously unfinished special effects of the first trailer to the realization that the new generation of swashbucklers we were following was just the kids of the first movie’s protagonists, it was clear that the movie we were promised wasn’t going to be the one Disney delivered. And that was before I learned that this is merely the lead-in to the actual last movie in the franchise.
Desperate to free his father from his cursed servitude on the Flying Dutchman, Will Turner’s son, Henry, sets sail to find the legendary Trident of Poseidon: an ancient artifact said to be able to break any curse. But when the British navy brands him a traitor, he seeks out Jack Sparrow, an old friend of his father’s, and teams up with Carina Smyth, an astronomer with a map leading to the Trident.
Matters are complicated, however, when an old nemesis of Jack’s — the ghostly Captain Armando Salazar, an infamous pirate-killer — is freed from the Devil’s Triangle and seeks to purge the Caribbean of all piracy and deliver particularly savage vengeance on dear old Captain Jack. Afraid of meeting the business end of Salazar’s sword, Barbosa agrees to hunt down Jack and bring him to Salazar’s justice. Meanwhile, Carina’s escape from British Lieutenant Scarfield’s custody leads him on an obsessive mission to execute her as a witch.
From that description alone, it’s obvious what the movie’s biggest problem is: too many moving parts. In addition to Jack’s, Salazar’s, Barbosa’s and Scarfield’s crews — all of whom find themselves entangled in the same slapdash quest for the franchise’s latest mythical McGuffin — there’s the on-again-off-again desertion of Mr. Gibbs, Jack’s first mate and the commander of his men, and the reappearance of Will Turner after a full decade spent off-screen.
It’s not just the story of a vengeful ghost from Jack’s past. How can it be, with every notable villain in the franchise appearing at some point in the movie? There are too many characters at play here and too many poorly-juggled plotlines for it to be otherwise.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is the franchise hitting creative bedrock: the absolute end of the line for anything that even pretends to be original. It merely recycles the best pieces of the franchise’s past entries and fills in the gaps with backstories nobody asked for.
Seriously, there’s an entire flashback dedicated to how Jack got his hat. In a pointless retcon of the second movie, we see a new origin for Jack’s magical compass. The only reason why Salazar is even after him now is because Jack “betrayed the compass,” which it evidently took personally.
The absolute low-point of both the movie in isolation and the franchise as a whole, however, is what Disney has done to the once unimpeachable Jack Sparrow. He was always an oddball character, but inevitably one who was more in charge of any given situation than he let on. He was like a drunken Kung Fu master: using a guise of apparent aloofness to trick his enemies into dropping their guard before he either turned on them (his escape from Port Royal) or verbally entrapped them (getting Davy Jones to take other hapless souls instead of himself).
Gone is that Jack in Dead Men Tell No Tales. His final trick was to convince the writers of this movie that he’s actually just a 17th Century Jar-Jar Binks: coming out on top not because he’s really that good, but because he’s such an over-the-top buffoon that he just lucks into a way out of the hole he just dug for himself. There is not one scene where Jack wins through skill or planning: just a listless series of encounters where he drunkenly stumbles into the right Ruth Goldberg Machine of events that eventually — somehow — works out for him.
There is honestly nothing I can, in good conscious, recommend about this movie. The plot is an absolute mess that doesn’t know itself what it’s about most the time. The film not only dregs up the most uninteresting characters of the franchise’s past, but drives the worthwhile ones into the ground. And yes, there really is a post-credit tease about how the next movie will feature a villain that they killed off in 2007.
Buy on BluRay: Not on your life.