The opening scene of the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” is a fitting metaphor for where we stand in this long franchise: A creaky old galleon is unceremoniously yanked up from the ocean depths and the only things aboard are cranky old ghosts.
A weary, battered fifth chapter – “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” – lumbers into theaters this summer high on CGI tricks but with a hopelessly muddled plot and recurring characters basically running on fumes.
Johnny Depp is back as Jack Sparrow, as is Geoffrey Rush as a well-bearded Barbossa, looking a lot like the Cowardly Lion, and his faithful capuchin monkey. Newcomers include Golshifteh Farahani as a pretty cool, punky witch, and Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites, who play young star-crossed lovers with serious daddy issues, adding vitality and maybe future franchise possibilities.
The bad guy this time is Javier Bardem as a ghost ship captain and he proves to be an extraordinary actor because he comes across as a very believable ghost ship captain. His full-throttled, single-minded fury recalls Ricardo Montalban in “The Wrath of Khan.”
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The film also features the returns of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley – but in tiny cameos only – as the lovers Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. They missed the fourth installment because they were smart.
Directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning have been given the keys to the kingdom and they’ve thrown everything at it – a half-dozen big sea battles, a shotgun wedding, a joint execution, underwater sword fights and even a Beatle. Look carefully and you'll find Sir Paul McCartney doing a cameo in a jail. (For those of you keeping score at home, this movie now co-stars one monkey and one Beatle.)
Fans of this Pirates franchise have had to wait six long years for this offering, ever since “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” in 2011. That was the one about the fountain of youth. It took over from the third, bloated edition, “At World’s End,” which seemed to be about a global chase for a magical navigation chart and some hot pirate-on-pirate fighting.
This fifth edition is all about a hunt for the Trident of Poseidon, which can break curses. But it’s also about Bardem and his ghost crew busting out of the Devil’s Triangle to hunt pirates, as well as Barbossa protecting his pirate empire, and the two young lovers fulfilling their destinies. Keep up: There’s a test at the end. Just kidding.
At the center of all this madness is Depp, whose Sparrow is now down-on-his-luck and abandoned by his crew. He’s always drunk, apparently has stuffed cotton balls into his mouth and is deeply unfunny. (He keeps muttering about being a bed wetter.) Depp didn’t just phone this in; he snail-mailed in his performance.
The story writers – Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio – have not only overstuffed the script, they’ve dumbed everything down (they think “horology” is a hysterically dirty word) and there’s hardly a quiet moment in the entire two-hour movie. Plus, not to get too historical about a movie that deals with ghost pirates, but are they certain seamen in the eighteenth century greeted each other with “How’s it going?”
You can’t beat the special effects, though, especially the way the ghosts are rendered, with parts missing from their bodies. The ghost sharks and ghost birds – OK, stay with us – are pretty awesome, too. And the ghost Depp is really spooky. Wait, that’s just regular Depp, failing to make an impression. Our bad.
After this fifth episode, you'll wish Disney would just declare the franchise dead and tell no more tales.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”
Running time: 128 minutes