Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review: Dead Men Tell No Tales is desperately dull with an over-reliance on Johnny Depp

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Writers: Jeff Nathanson, Terry Rossio
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup

Synopsis: Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon while being pursued by an undead sea captain and his crew.


Pirates of the Caribbean returns with its fifth installment and a minor reboot of cast with Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites joining the team.

Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales begins with young Henry Turner raising the sunken Flying Dutchman on which his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) has been imprisoned. They have a brief bonding session, some plot is explained (Henry needs the Trident of Poseidon to free Will), then the Flying Dutchman is reclaimed by the sea and you Henry left without his dad again.

A caption: nine years later.

So Pirates starts (again) with an older Henry Turner (now played by Brenton Thwaites) as a rebellious crew member on a naval ship that accidentally sails into a hole in the cliffs called “The Devils Triangle” where young Turner meets Alfonso Salazar (Javier Bardem). Some more plot is explained (Salazar can only be freed from his curse when Jack Sparrow gives up his compass because Jack tricked him when he was living, and he now wants revenge), young Turner is cast adrift with orders to find Sparrow and steal his compass.

So Pirates starts (for a third time) with young female scientist Corinna (Kaya Scodelario) being charged with being a witch and sentenced to death in the town of St Maarten. She’s an orphan whose only possession is a book written by Gallileo (yes, that one) which he describes his search for the Trident of Poseidon in an elaborate code that has become known as the map that no man can read.

Anyway, Corinna makes a break for it during the opening of the town’s new bank, a ceremony that is interrupted by the discovery of a drunk Jack Sparrow in the bank’s vault, and cue a very large scale, imaginative and well executed chase sequence.

Jack’s crew desert him due to the failure of the robbery and he chooses to spend the days drunk in a pub, paying for his last bottle of rum with his magic compass, an act that releases Salazar and his crew from their cave in the cliffs and allows them to roam the seas again. Meanwhile young Turner is washed up on shore babbling something about the Trident of Poseidon and promptly arrested, but is freed by Corinna (who overhead the young man’s witterings when he was brought ashore) while she gets arrested and sentenced to death (again). Jack is arrested for something else (probably being annoying) and also locked up. Young Turner breaks into the prison to speak to her, ends up discovering Jack Sparrow who he informs of Salazar’s intention to exact revenge. Sparrow realises he’s given away his compass and unintentionally freed his Spanish nemesis so he too needs to find the Trident of Poseidon as it contains all the curses of the sea and, once found, could be used to break them. Aka more plot is explained.

So Pirates starts again with another elaborate, large scale, imaginative and well executed action sequence to break Jack and Corinna out of execution and the motley band of heroes can then head off in search of the Trident.

Then Geoffrey Rush turns up and decides he’ll help the Navy (led by David Wenham – looking lost) hunt down Jack and sets off in pursuit.

So Pirates starts again, but this time as a sort of chase movie.

By the way, there are no spoilers in the above – that’s the first forty minutes.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is a very handsome film to look at, the special effects and production design are extremely fine. It is also a very expensive film – it genuinely looks like a lot of money was spent making it. These are traits to be lauded. The script is better written than many films, everyone is trying hard. The music is very good.

However all of these good intentions are squandered on a film that is stiflingly, witheringly, perishingly dull. It’s SO boring. I cannot recall ever being so bored in a cinema. Usually even bad films have something to quicken the pulse, or raise a smile, or have, I dunno, some sense of entertainment. Shoot, even legendary turkey Gods of Egypt had a better sense of entertaining its audience than this one.

Part of the blame has to lie with the script which is surprisingly well written – as in it has a lively grasp of language and good use of English. The problem is that all the jokes and witty wordplay just fall utterly flat. The wit is sub-Carry-On level, but without the history and snide performances that provide the humor in that venerable series. The innuendo is cringe-worthy, below the level of the seaside-postcard and to cap it all this crushingly boring level of humor is delivered without any form of comedic punch or timing. Some of the jokes are even followed by someone on screen laughing, as if a cue for us, the audience, to do the same. I didn’t. Neither did my colleagues in the screening I attended. In a film that is thought of as a comedy adventure, this raised exactly two thin smiles.

The first half of the film contains two huge action sequences, which are elaborately staged, filled with excellent stunts and one hugely imaginative guillotine gag that is genuinely inspired. But they too fall utterly flat. Dull, boring, unexciting – every minute of action is played for laughs, but the film’s crushing lack of humor ensures that these sequences are not remotely funny. In the original ride, visitors are showing individual scenes loosely based on pirate history – pirates drinking in a bar, pirates storming a castle, and so on – and these action sequences feel like the same sort of thing. They don’t really serve the plot much, but they are at least interesting. It is telling that as the plot begins to overpower the film, these sort of sequences disappear to be replaced by death-by-CGI action sequences. It seems a crushing waste of the talents of the stunt team, the production designers and the directors who tried, really tried, to create these sequences and to make them fun and exciting, but ultimately other elements of the production have overwhelmed their best intentions.

The plot is stunningly complex and convoluted. The first film was largely nonsensical, but now the series’ convoluted mythology has tied itself in complicated knots, all of which needs to be explained. It, sadly, falls to the actors to routinely explain to the audience what is going on and why, which has the unfortunate effect of reduces the screen time available to serve character. All of the characters, with the exception of Sparrow, are very poorly served.

Which brings us to the other major problem with the film, the Depp in the room if you will: Captain Jack Sparrow. Sparrow was always an acquired taste, the over-the-top mannerisms and drunken acting- all slurring and mad hand flapping – entranced some viewers and alienated others. While he was largely well served by the first film (which I remember enjoying, if not exactly loving), he’s just became more and more annoying as the film series has continued. As the plots got more complicated, as the cast numbers ballooned, the audiences were expected to find in Depp and his performance all the film’s entertainment: look, here’s Jack scared of a monkey; look here’s Jack drunkenly running away from a fight; look here’s Jack trying, and failing, to romance a ‘lovely’. It’s a lot for such a shallow, irredeemable character to carry, and the film fails in this respect.

Jack Sparrow was always a pathetic individual, a useless pirate who somehow, often accidentally, always against his wishes, saves the day. The conflict of the first film was that Sparrow did not want to save the day but frequently ended up in situations where his innate decency ensured that he had to step up, even when he really didn’t want to. The conflict for the other characters was persuading Sparrow to assist them in their quest. This is fairly a complex, and interesting, dynamic. The hero of the first film was Orlando Bloom’s noble, resourceful Will Turner, not Johnny Depp’s shambolic, pathetic pirate. Depp was the light relief.

However Sparrow was the breakout character of the first film and for the next two sequels the writers had to covert their shambolic non-hero into the hero of a series of films that was rapidly expanding in scope. To do this, the writers have relied increasingly on odd mystical inventions: Jack has a magic compass, Jack is king of the pirates, voodoo priestesses, mystical witches and so on. Which has led directly to the series’ impossibly complicated mythology, and the lengthy exposition speeches from the cast that are required to explain it all.

Thing is, as the series’ plot disappears up its own wazoo with plot convolution atop convolution, and all the other characters exist solely to explain the story, all the film has left in its armory is to present Depp, as Sparrow, in the hope he is funny enough to carry the film. He isn’t, not by a long way. He simply drains the life out of the film. The character is too weak to carry the weight that is expected of it, the performance not good enough, the humor too thin. Everything Depp throws into the character, all those verbal and visual mannerisms, comes off as irritating. It is a tiresome, annoying performance.

How about the other actors? Well, it’s a mixed bag:
Bardem is adequate in a one-dimensional role which doesn’t really give the great actor much to work with. Salazar is a thin character and relies entirely on Jack Sparrow for his motivation, so see above for the problems that brings.

Geoffrey Rush is phoning in his performance, we’ve seen this hundreds of times before. Again the character only exists because of the plot, not the world. Barbossa, a clearly successful pirate, is apparently willing to risk all of his accrued wealth in pursuit of Sparrow for reasons that didn’t, to me at least, seem clear. So his character too relies on Jack Sparrow for his motivation so, er, see above.

Brenton Thwaites is bland, in the same way Orlando Bloom was bland in the original, so he’s actually a fine fit for this series. However his character also relies entirely on Jack Sparrow for his motivation so, …. oh you get the idea.

Kaya Scodelario is, by far, the best thing in this film. She is helped by her character not having to rely on Depp’s creation for her motivation and her story is an interesting one. Well, for this film it’s interesting, we have all seen this particular character arc many, many times before. However Scodeario is earnest, spunky, bright and perky and an appealing presence. She delivers her lines snappily and with purpose, even when they are nonsense exposition, and she is a bright star in an ocean of misery.

Despite all the above criticism I have yet to address the single worst offense in the film’s litany of failings: the celebrity cameo.

Ever since the first Pirates appeared, people noticed that Depp’s performance appeared to be modeled on The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. By the third film, Richards had been roped into the franchise and delivered a fun, if unintelligible, cameo in the second sequel. Some wonks thought that’s a fun thing the audience will be attracted by, and dragged him back for the fourth film. So it is that Paul McCartney appears in a cameo so cringy, so toe-curlingly awful, you’d think it was a Ricky Gervais sketch. McCartney, the least talented Beatle, a man who single handedly brought the London Olympics closing ceremony to a crashing halt, brings all of his talents to bear on his cameo – awful screechy scouse accent, gurning fizzog, lousy timing delivering weak jokes – he is so bad he actually makes Depp look good for a moment. It is a performance so irredeemably awful it makes David Beckham’s appearance in King Arthur look Oscar-worthy.

While I bring it up, King Arthur has a much better idea of what constitutes filmic entertainment than this. It is considerably more fun, far funnier, has much better pacing and plot, and for all of its wrongness, it is where I’d recommend you spend your money if you are in the market for a fantasy adventure flick this week.

An end credits sequence hints at yet more Pirates to come. Let’s hope not. This is the foul death rattle from a wheezing corpse of a franchise that should have been declared dead many, many years ago. This is a film so unsure of itself it is called something completely different in the UK to the rest of Europe for no apparent reason. It is a film that seems content to waste huge amounts of money and talent on an overly complex and unfunny script. It is film that seems content with not even attempting to deliver anything close to entertainment to its audience. It is a film where there is, literally, a shark jumping sequence. It is a film where the story revolves around a trident that, when eventually found, has two prongs.

Two prongs does not make a right. Let’s not mince around here, Disney wonks – Please, please, don’t make another one.

Overall Grade: D-


Hear our podcast review on Episode 223:


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