There’s a scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” where Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, if you weren’t aware) and Henry Turner (franchise newcomer Brenton Thwaites) are trapped inside a sinking lifeboat, being attacked by bloodthirsty undead sharks. As Turner declares the situation hopeless, Jack desperately continues to bail out the lifeboat, repeatedly exclaiming, “We’ll be fine, we’ll be fine.”
Turner’s not convinced, but moments later Jack has outsmarted not only the sharks but the approaching army of undead sailors, proving once again that Captain Jack Sparrow can salvage any situation, no matter how impossible, deadly or absurd — usually through a haphazard plan equal parts deadly, impossible and absurd.
It’s possible to view this scene as a metaphor for the “Pirates” franchise — though the potential cinematic pitfalls increase with each new sequel, and though we grow more and more dubious of the franchise’s sustainability, Jack Sparrow not only stays afloat but returns each time in triumphant, swashbuckling fashion.
“Dead Men Tell No Tales” follows Jack’s latest quest, this time for the legendary Trident of Poseidon, an ancient weapon that allows its wielder to take command of the seas — and break all its curses. Jack needs the Trident to save himself from the malicious Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a Spanish sailor hell-bent on seeking revenge for the curse Jack lured him into years before. Jack is joined by Will Turner’s son, Henry, who himself needs the Trident to free his father from the Flying Dutchman’s curse, and by Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer seeking a connection to her estranged father — also, of course, via the Trident. Directed by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning, the film also features the return of Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann. Savvy?
Longtime fans will be treated to a veritable shipload of subtle references that harken back to “The Curse of the Black Pearl.” The dynamic between Jack and Henry parallels that of Jack and Will in a way that is masterfully elegant, and “Dead Men” finally ties up loose ends from Jack’s past left in the wake of the second and third films.
Between ships deftly maneuvering around hairpin turns, swift sword fights on top of canons and a literally predatory vessel that obliterates victim ships in the jaws of its bow, there’s enough creativity in the action to produce a consistent thrill. Still, “Dead Men” doesn’t do justice to the development of the franchise’s original central characters.
The appeal of Jack Sparrow is admittedly difficult to maintain film after film — he’s endearingly foolish, yet remarkably calculating, devilishly selfish yet morally flexible, and the balance between these contradictory traits is critical. In this movie, that sense of balance has been lost — for the first time, Jack is actually too drunk, and is more carried by the tides of this film than he is creator of them.
The crimes against Barbossa’s character, meanwhile, originate in the fourth installment, “On Stranger Tides.” His transformation from harbinger of anarchy to luxury-loving, only sort-of-pirate-y privateer has resulted in the loss of a critical cast dynamic — Jack’s only truly equal rival has been reduced to a mere pal.
“Dead Men” continues to exacerbate this issue to an excruciatingly frustrating degree. Maybe Barbossa is a more likeable human being now, but that was never the point. He is essential to the world of “Pirates” characters that are almost always presented in dichotomous counterpoints (think Jack and Barbossa, Will and Elizabeth, Davy Jones and Cutler Beckett, etc.), but Rønning and Sandberg sacrifice this balance for an unnecessary, distracting injection of heart.
While the film underserves its characters, the basic elements that its story is grounded in are the most satisfying of any “Pirates” film since the first. We have all the right characters — two lovers, a handful of scheming pirates, the overambitious Royal Navy and a petrifying villain — as well as the proper visuals — magnificent ships, undead creatures and colorful locations. Sprinkle in one of the greatest film scores ever composed, and it’s nearly impossible for this ship to be blown off course.