Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales shouldn't exist, but as far as movies that shouldn't exist go, it's not actually half-bad. Six years after the franchise's last, worst movie came out - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - it would have taken absolutely nothing for this to have avoided being the worst sequel of the series. Lo and behold, I'm pretty happy calling it the best sequel, with the caveat that none of them have actually been much good at all, and we'd be just as well off if the 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl had remained unsullied by any developments beyond the popcorn movie perfection of its final scene.

Dead Men Tell No Tales has the cleanest narrative of any film in the series since the first, which makes sense, given that it's basically just stealing the first film's plot structure (Dead Men Tell No Tales is also the shortest movie of the five, just grazing two hours if we ignore the end credits and dully predictable post-credits sequel hook). Some twenty years after 2007's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the golden age of pirates has still somehow not ended, though it has gotten awfully shabby for dissolute, alcoholic Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who has gone from colorful weirdo to full-on pathetic bastard sometime in the five in-universe years since On Stranger Tides. His crew of pirates have been reduced to a draggletail half-dozen figures barely putting up with Jack's incapacity as they skulk around on the coasts of Saint Martin (which the filmmakers appear to believe was under control of England).

The island is about to become a hotspot of narrative activity, for three things happen almost simultaneously: Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a young woman with a passionate fascination for astrology and science, has just escaped execution as a witch (in the mid-18th Century?), and is hastening around the island trying to scrape up clues to allow her to unlock a mystery, the location of a magical artifact called Poseidon's Trident. At the same time, the same mystery is bedeviling Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Jack Sparrow's old sailing compatriots Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, both putting in cameos, though Knightley's barely counts), who believes the trident can be used to break the curse that has kept his father chained to the legendary Flying Dutchmen all these years. Lastly, Jack and his crew are attempting a massive bank-vault heist, in a sequence that flagrantly steals from Fast Five, and in no way improves on it. Jack's shenanigans has the benefit of somewhat distracting the authorities from Carina and Henry (the latter of whom is to be executed for treason), and eventually they all end up together, sailing for the same goal, for three different purposes: Carina to do honor by the memory of her late father, Henry to save his, and Jack to avoid the ghost ship chasing him, under command of the wicked undead pirate hunter Salazar (Javier Bardem), who had previously crossed paths with Henry over the course of the boy's hunt for the trident. Along the way, somehow, they also pick up another pursuer in the form of pirate admiral Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the sometime-villain, sometime-ally of four out of five movies now.

This is, all things considered, a back-to-basics Pirates of the Caribbean movie, allowing that the series has had a long-term problem with keeping things even slightly basic. We've got a pair of super-generic pretty young people as the ostensible leads (and once again the woman is at least slightly interesting, while the man is as plain as watered-down vanilla pudding - Thwaites makes for good casting as Bloom's son, not in a positive way), and the appalling, obnoxious, but unavoidable Jack Sparrow orbiting around them. They are being chased by ghosts scary enough to test the boundaries of family-friendly horror. And that's pretty much it - the nightmarish confabulations of plot that made Dead Man's Chest and At World's End such slogs to get through are gone (though so, alas, is the visual flair of those films' director, Gore Verbinski; only in a scene that straps Jack to a guillotine and spins him around in circles does Dead Men Tell No Tales come even close to a Verbinkskian visual conceit. I suppose the malformed appearance of the ghosts does as well, but in a more generic way), and it's simply not as shitty and lifeless as On Stranger Tides.

It helps matters immeasurably that Depp has been reduced to the status of heavily featured supporting player: probably the single biggest obstruction to my enjoyment of any previous PotC sequel has been the film's reliance on Jack Sparrow as a front-and-center Bugs Bunny figure, rather than the seedy, leering figure on the sidelines, pitching out acerbic commentary on the plot rather than stepping in to engage with it. The lightning strike of novelty that came with the first movie is absolutely never coming back, of course, butΒ Dead Men Tell No Tales at least grasps that the appeal of Jack is as a destablising element added to a pirate melodrama-adventure, not as the protagonist. And that, more than anything, is why I think the film tends to work, despite a seemingly critical number of flaws: the complete washout in the two romantic leads (The Curse of the Black Pearl at least had Knightley); the blatantly arbitrary re-introduction of Barbossa and the fairly dreadful things the film does with him as a character, along with Rush's most detached performance of him yet; the "because the screenwriters said so" quality to the way the film employs magic and curses,; the way that one scene literally progresses as "but if we wait five minutes, the plot might advance" [five minutes later] "look, the plot advanced!", while filling in those five minutes with a thoroughly unnecessary flashback.

All that being taken as read, the film is still fun, in the disposable, trashy way of a beach read. Or a popcorn movie. Directors Joachim RΓΈnning & Espen Sandberg have a fine, meat-and-potatoes approach to the material that offers few surprises, but also gets the important matters dealt with - the Australian coastal locations are pretty, the ghosts are creepy as hell, the action setpieces (even the bank heist, for all my grousing above) are perfectly distracting and well-matched by Geoff Zanelli's generic adventure movie score. The final act turns into a giant, incoherent CGI whirlwind, of course, because that's what blockbuster movies in the 2010s do. But up till that point, more of it is pleasurable than not, and Depp's wry, lecherous asshole bit is actually funny, for the first time since 2003.

I make absolutely no claims that this is particularly worthy of anybody's time, or that it's a stand-out summer movie, or whatever. It is astonishingly free from ambition or creativity, and the story is a brutal wreck (though, arguably, the least-wrecked of all five Pirates films - this is not a writers' franchise). But I think if this had been the only sequel to The Curse of the Black Pearl, future generations might remember it as the perfectly okay follow-up to a pretty great pirate movie, rather than as "why is there another fucking Pirates of the Caribbean". Oh well.

Reviews in this series
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Verbinski, 2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Verbinski, 2006)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Verbinski, 2007)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Marshall, 2011)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (RΓΈnning & Sandberg, 2017)