A funny thing happened between seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and sitting down to write its review: The notion that little of this patchwork plot makes sense didn't matter as much as upon exiting the theater. The point of the series, whose amusement-park origin was originally treated as a joke in Hollywood until it met massive financial success many times over, is the spectacle. Gore Verbinski, who directed the first, second, and third installments, understood this, instituting an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink philosophy in his approach to the spectacle. Rob Marshall, who took over the reins for the fourth film, decidedly did not.
The fifth film, which sees another switch in director to two Norwegian filmmakers (Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg) making their English-language debut, strikes some sort of middle ground between those two feelings. The spectacle here returns to that mise en scene in the action sequences right from the start. Those sequences have a natural, sometimes very funny progression, although a climax that relies too heavily on a lot of gloopy CG and a murky backdrop is the exception. Jeff Nathanson's screenplay, though, falls back on circular exposition, flimsy narrative callbacks, and that nonsensical plot.
The crux of that premise is itself a callback, as the hero of this journey is named Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites). If that surname sounds familiar to you, there is a predictable reason for that. He is, indeed, the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), whose fate was sealed to the Dutchman at the end of the third movie. Henry believes he can break his father's curse, but first, he must seek out the Poseidon's trident. At the same time, Carina Smyth (Kaya Scoledario), a woman of science accused of witchcraft, searches for the trident in a journal bequeathed to her at birth.
It's at this point when the film strains for some connection to the previous movies. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, looking disinterested behind the eyes and the mascara), the ex-captain of the Black Pearl, is still a lovable, rum-swilling ne'er-do-well, opening the film with a chase that finds an entire bank building being carried along by horses. He still enjoys a rivalry with Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has taken Jack's place as the king of the sea. Even the primary threat feels like a retread of Barbossa's initial story line, with Salazar (Javier Bardem, whose physical presence is eerie and effective through a seamless combination of makeup and visual effects), an undead, bloodthirsty captain with whom Jack had a deadly quarrel, returning to take vengeance.
So much of the dialogue iterates, then reiterates, expository points of the plot (the location of the trident, the properties of Jack's uniquely gifted compass, Salazar's backstory) that it serves as a solid reminder of the dangers of such practices. In telling us constantly what we are seeing on the screen, the film merely exists as a vessel for spectacle, which includes some clever set pieces (the bank robbery, some business involving a guillotine, and some other business involving undead sharks). Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales bounces the series back from the nadir of its immediate predecessor, but it's also oddly joyless for a final installment of a franchise whose roots are in having a bit of fun.
Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow), Brenton Thwaites (Henry Turner), Kaya Scodelario (Carina Smyth), Geoffrey Rush (Captain Hector Barbossa), Javier Bardem (Captain Salazar), Kevin McNally (Gibbs), Golshifteh Farahani (Shansa), David Wenham (Scarfield), Stephen Graham (Scrum), Angus Barnett (Mullroy), Martin Klebba (Marty), Adam Brown (Cremble), Giles New (Murtogg), Orlando Bloom (Will Turner), Paul McCartney (Uncle Jack), Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Swann).
Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg and written by Jeff Nathanson.
Rated PG-13 (adventure violence, suggestive material).
Released on May 26, 2017.