Bless you, ghost sharks.
Those demonic CGI creations bring urgently needed bite to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the fifth entry in a long-winded voyage that has been slowly keeling over ever since we met swashbuckling scalawag Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp in his most famous role) in 2003. Too bad the spectacularly animated critters — so weird and nasty — arrive late to the party and then retreat so quickly.
The rest of “Dead Men” could have benefitted from their gonzo style.
“Pirates” charts a familiar course even as it unites the search for Poseidon’s Trident with the deadly deeds of a band of dead pirate haters whose captain has a vendetta against the drunken Sparrow
Intermittently, it recalls the rousing spirit of the first “Pirates,” but fails to do anything bold or unexpected. In fact, for 30 minutes after an eventful prologue, the film goes flat. It later rights itself enough as the pirate haters go beserk.
“Dead Men” mostly sticks to the tried and tired during what amounts to an unfunny first part cluttered with routine bank-robbing antics and screwball getaways. It all seems better suited for a reboot of the studio’s “The Apple Dumpling Gang.”
The plot is as tangled as sea kelp, too intent on further lengthening out a mythology than the story can handle. It all but positions itself for a sequel.
Part of the mayhem occurs when Sparrow trades his compass for a bottle of booze, unwittingly placing a big target on his back. A dead crew of pirate exterminators commandeered by Captain Salazar (a game Javier Bardem and one of the film’s high notes) go after him. Salazar is hellbent on payback over a less-than-friendly first encounter (told effectively in flashback) with a younger Sparrow.
Meanwhile, Sparrow’s thorn-in-his-side Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his monkey join in on the search of Poseidon’s Trident, a treasure that could stop these dead sailors and help in other ways I’m just not going to reveal.
Who initiates all this talk about Poseidon and the Trident? The hunky Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites more than fulfilling his hunk duties) who happens to be the son of cursed “Pirates” lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) along with a brainiac astronomer type Carina (Kaya Scodelario, in a lively performance) who’s been branded a witch.
Along the way, Paul McCartney pops in as a Sparrow relative and Depp regains his unsteady comedic footing after being handed some terrible lines that sound cribbed from the last four installments. His character is too predictable, and Sparrow shouldn’t be predictable. That changes a bit in the second half as the humor starts to gel.
Incoming directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”) do whatever they can with what they’ve been given, but the reality is the screenplay from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio is rote and there’s not that much here.
There are a few clever surprises along the way and a showdown that’s an exciting and impressive, from a special effects angle.
But that’s not enough to prop up the sails of this franchise, even if a tasty morsel at the end of the film’s credits intrigues. The next “Pirates” needs to give “Sparrow” something more interesting to do, a more risk-taking development that will force Depp to stretch and the story to steer toward a more original direction.
But whatever they do, let’s hope they keep those killer ghost sharks and Bardem too.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario
Running Time: 2:33
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence and suggestive comments)
Stars: 2.5 out of 4