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Dead franchises tell bad tales

May 31, 2017
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“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

When I first heard that Disney was going to try and turn their “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme park ride into a movie, it seemed like a tremendously stupid idea. Now, with four movies that together grossed just shy of $4 billion at the global box office and the newest film already over a quarter-billion in global receipts despite having just opened, it’s clear that I certainly should not be running a movie studio.

This newest one - the fifth – is “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” … and it might be the most cynical of the bunch. It’s a blatant cash grab with little narrative investment and a fair disregard for the franchise’s already wobbly continuity, not to mention a collection of performances that are essentially varying shades of disinterested.

Young Henry Turner has devoted his life to trying to break the curse binding his father Will (Orlando Bloom, “Digging for Fire”) to the Flying Dutchman. His quest is to find the Trident of Poseidon, which apparently breaks all of the sea’s curses (because if you’re going to MacGuffin, you might as well McGuffin SO HARD); apparently, he needs Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”) to locate it or something.

Years later, a now-grown Henry (Brenton Thwaites, “Gods of Egypt”) attempts to save his Naval vessel from the dangers of the Devil’s Triangle. He is imprisoned for mutiny for his troubles, only to wind up the sole survivor when super-angry ghost Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, “The Last Face”) and his even-angrier ghost crew kill the entire crew of Henry’s ship.

He winds up being sentenced to death once he returns to shore, only to cross paths with a brilliant astronomer named Carina (Kaya Scodelario, “The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”) who just happens to have access to a map that supposedly leads to the Trident. Conveniently enough, Jack Sparrow is also here (to rob a bank?), so that helps move things along.

Previous-installment-appearing pirate Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, TV’s “Genius”) is also here, with his own reasons for trying to fight against the dark forces of Captain Salazar (and for hating on Jack Sparrow, because that’s what people do in these movies).

Everybody is trying to find the Trident to do whatever magic stuff they need done, but they keep getting in one another’s way. Henry’s motives might be the purest, but purity isn’t likely to get it done when you’re dealing with pirates. Or maybe it will – it’s not like anyone seemed all that concerned about any of this making sense.

While some diminishing returns are certainly to be expected as a series ventures into its fifth film, this one sinks fast. In fact, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” – heretofore to be referred to as “DMTNT” – is an amalgamation of some of the utmost undesirable qualities of the modern franchise blockbuster, a bloated, hollow shell with little to say and even less soul.

Plenty of blame could be heaped on the directing team (Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg) or the screenwriter (Jeff Nathanson) – they certainly contributed mightily to the plastic joylessness of the film – but the truth is that they were likely only following orders, sanding every possible rough edge off a piece that was undoubtedly focus grouped to its foundation. This film exists solely to make money – a task it is already proving to be quite good at.

The cast certainly seems aware of how little quality matters. Depp is the ostensible star of the show, but his Captain Jack Sparrow has devolved into a drunken, stumbling caricature; it’s a performance marked by a dead-eyed disinterest on Depp’s part. It’s glaringly obvious that the only thing he doesn’t utterly loathe about his situation is the paycheck. Bardem and Rush don’t reach that point – they’re prepared to be professionals – but even they kind of go through the motions in a lot of spots. Thwaites and Scodelario gamely try their best, but this paper-thin, hole-riddled story gives them zero opportunity to connect. Most of the time, they’re little more than attractive background noise.

“DMTNT” marks the continuation of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise’s slow, steady sink to the bottom. It’s a treasure map with no X, a meandering, pointless exercise that ultimately leaves the viewer wishing that they themselves were lost at sea.

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