These are trying times for anyone hanging on to an appreciation of Depp after he’s officially been deemed uncool, insufferable, and, somehow, accused of simultaneously dialing it in and showboating. For years, I always maintained that Depp was pretty much the same as he ever was; only the perception of him had shifted (first for the better, then for the worse). But even if you try your best to ignore news about actors’ personal lives, it’s hard to avoid the bad stuff circulating about Depp, with allegations that range from making him sound lazy (allegedly receiving lines via earpiece so he doesn’t have to memorize them), self-indulgent (allegedly spending thousands upon thousands of dollars monthly on wine), or downright monstrous (allegedly verbally and/or physically abusing his ex-wife Amber Heard).
It’s especially hard to ignore these reports and focus on the work because Depp hasn’t delivered a dazzling career highlight in a while. He’s scary in Black Mass and funny in Mortdecai (hey, I actually saw it), but they’re not movies for the ages. And here he is again this week, playing Captain Jack Sparrow for a fifth time, in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Is it possible to enjoy Depp playing Jack Sparrow again? Is it possible to enjoy Depp at all?
Dead Men Tell No Tales makes it hard to tell, because like every Pirates movie since the first one, it’s a frustrating mix of the series’ strengths and weaknesses. The game has become figuring out how each movie favors which strengths and weaknesses, and where Depp’s initially brilliant performance falls in each one. Gore Verbinski’s first two sequels upped the action set-piece ante and the Gilliam-y surrealism while also snarling plot threads, double-crosses, and MacGuffins into a massive ball of twine that I found, if not impossible, at least unrewarding to untangle. Rob Marshall’s On Stranger Tides eased up slightly on the convolutions but thrust Depp’s Sparrow further into a central role to diminishing returns. Now Dead Men Tell No Tales, from Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, of the engaging sea adventure Kon-Tiki, is sort of a greatest-hits where at least a third of the tracks are actually kind of annoying.
It does at least devise another smashing entrance for Depp’s Sparrow, who wakes up, still sloshed, in the middle of a bank robbery. The ensuing chase, involving an even more unlikely feat of safe-dragging than the climax of fellow fifth installment Fast Five, pulls that old Pirates trick of merging spectacle and slapstick, but despite a fine punchline, it’s all a bit lumbering (given the size of the cargo, seemingly by design). Sparrow is pulling off this robbery because he and his skeleton crew of loyalists are at loose ends, with a barely seaworthy ship and lacking a certain pirate joie de vivre.
It’s not a bad idea for how to rejoin Sparrow, but would-be comic scenes of Sparrow drowning his sorrows in rum play a little uncomfortably for anyone with passing knowledge of recent off-screen Depp history. A scene where Jack Sparrow blithely, desperately trades his beloved magical compass (it points whoever holds it to whatever he or she wants most in the world) for a single bottle of alcohol feels particularly squirmy, and not because the movie is exploring previously untapped depths of the character. Really, it’s just triggering another nonsense multiple-MacGuffin plot, because the compass leaving Jack’s hands for some reason releases the vengeful, murderous Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew from the Devil’s Triangle. It doesn’t break the curse that leaves them unable to pursue their prey on land, but they do take their ghost ship, which rears up to reveal spindly legs that can tear through their enemies, on a mission to kill Sparrow and any other pirates who stand in their way.
The story also involves Henry (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Carina (Kaya Scodelario), both seeking the legendary trident of Poseidon; Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has amusingly ascended into pirate opulence, also gets into the picture, because why not. It’s all a weird way of both moving away from the mythology of the original trilogy (as the previous sequel did) while also trying to revive that mythology for the fans (who by and large didn’t seem to care much for that previous sequel).
Plenty of enjoyable Pirates hallmarks remain: The special effects aren’t just plentiful but plentifully inventive, especially with the decaying, ghostly remains of Salazar’s crew. The movie is a pleasure to look at, with zombie sharks jumping above gorgeous blue seas, and walls of ocean parting to form a passageway. Though it’s still larded with too much set-up and backstory, its fraying tall-tale aspects can still provide momentary shivers of pleasure. This is also the shortest Pirates yet, running just over two hours.
But Depp is ill-served by a screenplay with a paucity of funny lines, and an excess of cornball running gags. To the degree that Dead Men contains wit, it’s of the visual variety, like Sparrow’s encounter with a guillotine that is shot to resemble, yes, a theme-park ride. It’s not that the new characters are so much funnier, or more intriguing — in fact, much the opposite. Jack Sparrow doesn’t have many people to bounce off of, to undercut. The movie, including Sparrow, already undercuts itself.
Late-period Depp, and Jack Sparrow sequels in particular, has been described as toxically self-indulgent. But the thing is, Sparrow was a better character when he was truly self-indulgent — Depp indulging his soused-rock-star-meets-silent-comedy whims as a more traditional swashbuckler dodged and parried around him. Depp is always going to ham it up in some parts; a filmography full of Gilbert Grapes and Donnie Brascos only wouldn’t be all that impressive, much as some fetishize the notion of restraint. But in the past, the actor has appeared to be following his whims, chasing demons with whimsy and vice versa. Maybe he still is. He doesn’t feel uncommitted in Pirates 5. He just feels committed to something that has been rebuilt in cardboard around him. It’s a shame that he may be lashing out against this ease, this luxury, off screen instead of on.