If numbers mean anything to you, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (*** OUT OF ****) is the fifth film in Walt Disney Studios’ 18th century, supernatural, seafaring, fantasy franchise about swashbuckling buccaneers. Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg of “Bandidas” have taken the helm and recycled the best elements of the series with this boisterous as well as bizarre scavenger hunt for the fabled Trident of Poseidon. The Trident—according t0 “Tower Heist” writer Jeff Nathanson’s elaborate but rambling screenplay–will absolve any curses cast on seagoing guys. The exhaustive Trident search amounts to a marathon enterprise in this scenic, widescreen, PG-13 rated, 129-minute epic, but everything works out in the surf. The CGI animation of various characters and the ocean where they find the Trident is probably a milestone for the franchise. Mind you, the “Pirates” movies have savagely maligned for their heavy reliance on special visual effects. Given that fantasy is the keystone of the franchise, such criticism seems entirely irrelevant. Nothing about the “Pirates” movies, aside from the exotic settings and sprawling production designs, is remotely authentic. After several mediocre movies and enough bad press to drive a lesser mortal into exile, Johnny Depp is back doing what he does best. Captain Jack Sparrow is as rum-soaked as ever, and Depp plays him with his characteristic flair for comic theatricality.
Directors Rønning and Sandberg have delivered not only a superior sequel but also an interesting prequel. This time we see Jack before he acquired his signature headgear and attained the rank of captain. Captain Jack Sparrow is still as much a hero as a buffoon. This time out he is pitted against an utterly villainous ghost, while the pride of His Majesty’s Imperial Fleet terrorizes him. Presumably, after the least memorable 0f sequels, i.e., “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer sought a return to form. Although it lacks the inspired spontaneity of the original “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” you couldn’t ask for more from this fourth sequel. Forty minutes shorter than the second, overindulgent sequel “Dead Man’s Chest,” “Dead Men Tell No Tales” ties up many loose narrative threads as well as charts a possible future for the franchise.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” opens with an attention-grabbing scene. Twelve-year old Henry Turner (newcomer Lewis McGowan) rows out by himself into the ocean at night. Knotting a rope to his ankle, which in turn is attached to an anchor, he steps from the boat into the briny deep, and the anchor plunges him down to the ocean floor. Holding his breath all the way down, Henry lands on the deck of the sunken pirate ship The Flying Dutchman. Henry meets the ghostly apparition of his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom of “Ned Kelly”), and assures him that he hasn’t given up on his lifting the curse on his dad. Henry tells him about the Trident of Poseidon and assures his father that he can live on land again as soon as Henry acquires the trident. The Flying Dutchman surfaces from the deep, and Will reminds Henry that the trident is largely a legend. Nevertheless, Henry vows to find it. Nine years elapse, and Henry (Brenton Thwaites of “Maleficent”) is aboard a British sailing ship in pursuit of a pirate ship. Henry warns the captain in vain that he is pursuing a treacherous course into the Devil’s Triangle as the ship approaches a tunnel in a mountain surrounded by a reef. The captain charges Henry with treason and has the youth clapped in irons. Not long afterward, the dreaded Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem of “Skyfall”) attacks his ship. They kill everybody aboard except Henry because they find Jack Sparrow wanted posters in his possession. Salazar allows Henry to live on the condition that he tell Jack Sparrow that he wants him. Furthermore, Salazar lets Henry live because he always sends one lone survivor back to tell the tale.
Meantime, Sparrow and his pirate crew have sneaked into the township of St. Martin. They have come to rob the bank. The bank directors are celebrating the addition of new, impregnable vault that nobody can rob. When they open the formidable vault, the commotion awakens a sozzled Jack Sparrow who is inside it. The British fire a volley about the same time that Jack’s crew has lashing the vault to a team of powerful horses. Whipping the steeds into action, they wind up hauling the whole bank along with the vault behind them! Jack Sparrow entangles his foot in one of the ropes, and he is dragged along behind it, blissfully guzzling rum from a bottle. Predictably, the British follow with muskets blazing. The trouble is the door to the vault doesn’t shut and all the wealth in the vault spills out in a trail of golden bread crumbs that citizens scoop up. This qualifies as one of the best gags in this sprawling spectacle. Indeed, it recalls a similar robbery in “Fast Five.” Later, after the British Navy recaptures Jack, they set out to decapitate him with a French guillotine. At the same time, the British are poised to hang an alleged witch, Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario of “The Maze Runner”), because she claims to know how to read the stars as if they were a map. Not only does Henry believe she can lead him to the Trident, but also that Jack Sparrow has a compass that can aid them on the quest. Henry enlists the help of Sparrow’s crew, and this escape sequence is both hilarious and exciting.
The characters in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” run the gamut of larger-than-life as well as larger-than-death. Salazar’s zombie pirate crew are a CGI miracle. Most of his crew are missing fragments of their anatomy, some even their heads. The fifth installment in the “Pirates” franchise will keep you shivering and snickering.