It’s become difficult to listen to that hard-charging “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme without hearing Michael Bolton strain-crooning about Captain Jack Sparrow (“the jester of Tartuga!”) for the Lonely Island guys in that memorable “SNL” digital short. Then again, the “Pirates” franchise itself has always seemed like an unlikely mash-up of outlaw posture and pop silliness, eschewing any real sense of seagoing adventure for the more readily achievable goals of brand management and CGI swash and buckle.
The good news, though, is that the fifth entry, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” is the most divertingly enjoyable since the first. A professionally crafted brew of action, slapstick and supernatural mumbo-jumbo, it’s less likely to spur timepiece glances than did the last few bloated installments.
You can’t escape the sense that the whole thing, newly steered by the Norwegian directing team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Oscar nominees for 2012’s “Kon-Tiki”), is a cheeky corrective. Though not as resolutely tipped toward weirdness as Gore Verbinski’s sequels were, it’s neither as overstuffed with the nonsense that sunk “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End.” It’s also not as zipless and personality-free as the last one, the Rob Marshall-helmed “On Stranger Tides,” which couldn’t justify its existence, stumbling around as much as the series’ anti-hero, Captain Jack.
And speaking of Johnny Depp’s scoundrel of self-preservation, his tipsy-turvy antics may no longer be the freshly perfumed brine that subversively pickled what we all assumed was a craven theme-park movie (“The Curse of the Black Pearl”), turning it into a surprise hit. But with the popcorn ethos that animates “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” he’s at least treated like a reliably wiggly wind-up toy again, good for batting about, arranging into crazy positions, and countless batted-eyes double takes mixed with sloshy, cynical one-liners.
When Jack opines on “the unscratchable itch” to his young sailor companion Henry (Brenton Thwaites, “Gods of Egypt”), newly smitten by a beautiful astronomer named Carina (a plucky Kaya Scodelario, “The Maze Runner”), Henry knowingly agrees: love, right? Jack, confused, corrects him: “Scabies.” This isn’t searing wit, obviously, but coming amidst a thrillingly crazy ghost-shark attack and a beach siege by rotting pirates, it’s all just off-kilter enough to feel like a disreputably fun carnival ride.
The plot, such as it is in the screenplay by Jeff Nathanson (who wrote the story with franchise stalwart Terry Rossio), follows the pattern of the others: intersecting quests that allow for narrow escapes, odd alliances, and parental reunions. Henry wants to lift the curse on his father Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, back briefly), trapped at the bottom of the ocean in the Flying Dutchman, by finding the all-powerful Trident of Poseidon.
Carina, deemed a witch due to her intelligence, says she can find the Trident using “the map no man can read,” a reference to the use of stars to guide ships. They team with Jack, smarting from having lost the trust of his crew after a foiled bank robbery (an impressive opening action sequence in which a bank building is hauled through St. Martin).
Jack’s reasons for locating the Trident are personal, however: he’s become the target of a ghost captain named Salazar (a digitally decayed Javier Bardem), recently unleashed from the Devil’s Triangle and hellbent on securing revenge on the then-newbie buccaneer who vanquished him. Salazar’s murderous rampage against pirates — his risen, rotted ship forming jaws that chomp other vessels — even spurs the return of Geoffrey Rush’s peg-legged scalawag Barbossa to help defend against this newest threat.
The appeal of any “Pirates” movie is in the aggregate gleam of its many working parts, and this time around, thanks to the energetic direction of Rønning and Sandberg, the shine feels freshly buffed. There’s a dual guillotine/hanging rescue that’s as humorously staged as any in the series’ history; it calls to mind the inventive dash of silent comedy. The elaborate location trappings (ships at sea, island shores, bustling cities) veer between baroquely beautiful and picturesquely lush thanks to Paul Cameron’s colorful cinematography, and unlike the relentlessly dreary night in “On Stranger Tides,” it’s all mostly daytime-set this time around.
The regular houseguests — from Depp and Rush to utility pirate players like Stephen Graham — look game again, while a newcomer like Bardem seems hungry to make his mark and scare the bejesus out of any kids in tow. (Between the sword deaths and the Oscar-winner’s terrifying countenance, this is most decidedly a hard PG-13, parents.) We even get a suitable rock-world replacement for Keith Richards this time around: a delightfully funny Paul McCartney as Jack’s cheerily philosophical, imprisoned pirate uncle.
If you have “Pirates” PTSD, though, discovering the Trident is likely to give you endless-climax hives, and “Dead Men” doesn’t disappoint, devolving into the usual over-the-top CGI operatics. (For starters, the ocean parts.) Afterward, a human-sized surprise is revealed, and it’s easily guessable who’s going to show up, considering Henry’s lineage.
And yet the best thing one can say about “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is that it needs no referential callbacks to be its own admirably playful splash in the summer tentpole waters.