The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have long since crossed over into James Bond territory; they’re no longer about their heroes. What’s more important are the villains – who are usually dead, undead, or about to die – and the central MacGuffins. This time the villain is played by Javier Bardem and the MacGuffin is the legendary trident of Poseidon, and it’s a real doozy because unlike all the other MacGuffins, this one promises to undo the curses of the seven seas and restore life to normality, which, we are hoping, also includes scraping the barnacles off poor Orlando Bloom’s face.
As you may or may not recall, Bloom suffered the dreaded barnacle curse at the hands of Davy Jones more than ten years ago, and as Dead Men Tell No Tales opens, his son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) vows to relieve him of it. To do that, of course, he will need the trident, which also means, by tradition of a Pirates of the Caribbean plot, he will have to team up with Jack Sparrow.
Sparrow is once again played by Johnny Depp and is once again a figure most intrusive. If Sparrow was a novelty item in the very first Pirates picture, then by now he is an old dusty chest that must at once be dismantled (his very first line is already a nuisance). Depp plays him with so much flavour that the less we see of him, the better. But in Dead Men Sparrow is everywhere, usually severely unfunny and always in danger of derailing the film’s joys, of which there are surprisingly plenty.
This is a proper swashbuckling action adventure, with the kind of scale to make David Lean proud and the sort of thunderous, full-blooded musical score that elevated Star Wars (1977) to an art form. Sparrow and Depp aside, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have crafted here a movie about the seas that plays like a chapter from a children’s novel pumped full of adrenaline. Yes, the plot is essentially a beeline to the MacGuffin, the film borrows almost every joke and narrative element from its predecessors, and the bad guys are once again shot in front of a green screen and digitally animated to look like half-eaten zombies (in much the same way that Geoffrey Rush’s crew was in the original and every villain crew since), but I was relieved to discover a story behind all the action; an honest attempt to make us care for the characters for once.
Henry wants to return his dad to his former self, which brings out all the awws from the audience. Hector Barbossa (Rush) is back and despairs of ever finding true meaning in his life. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), another new addition, dreams of finding the trident because it’s the quest her dad started and never got to finish, and Scodelario has some fun running about in her corseted dress as she makes all the men look like fools.
Dead Men is more entertaining than a fifth movie in an insufferable series has any right to be. I liked the way an opening bank robbery turns into a kind of Western horse-and-carriage chase but with an entire building instead of a carriage. There are visually splendid moments, as when a mysterious island lights up with crystals to reflect the night sky. And there is a majesty about the film’s climactic showdown in which the ocean waters part like the Red Sea and the Black Pearl teeters precariously on the edge above.
For the next Pirates movie, I would like to see less Sparrow and more of the visual and kinetic prowess of this one. And also the score. Pirates of the Caribbean is perhaps the only film series left with music that is recognisable and memorable. I cannot recommend you see this film for the plot or the jokes, but I suspect you will have a good time feeling its cheerful energy. I, for one, walked out humming the theme music with a smile. That’s gotta count for something.