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For one nanosecond at the climax of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I thought the notorious Jack Sparrow was headed for Davey Jones's Locker once and for all. But barely had the idea formed – omigod, they aren't going to kill him off, are they? – when Captain Jack cheated death yet again and I realized my naiveté. No matter how far Depp descends into pallid self-parody, this bloated franchise could hardly dispense with its signature character. At the end of Dead Men Tell No Tales, the fifth instalment in a series inspired by a theme-park ride, the lovable scoundrel sails again – no spoiler there if you think about it for more than a nanosecond.

So what exactly is Disney doing with a franchise widely seen by critics to have gone off the monorail in 2011, when the studio followed up a hugely profitable and narratively complete trilogy with a dark and unnecessary fourth instalment? Clues are littered throughout the movie, as numerous as there are subplots about long-lost orphans, lifelong grudges and new-found loves. Do not be fooled by those words that appeared in the trailer – "Final Adventure," it said, to the bemusement of some. No, as long as fans line up at the box office, there will be more swash to buckle and timbers to shiver.

But who will be swashing and shivering? No matter how iconic the character, nobody involved in the project seems to have much faith left in the star power of the scandal-plagued Depp. The actor was still plausibly sexy when matched with Penelope Cruz in the fourth instalment, On Stranger Tides; today, embroiled in an ugly divorce and pursued by rumours of on-set misbehaviour, he is looking less than virile – and is treated accordingly by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson and the pair of Norwegians (Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg) directing this outing.

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There is one suggestion of a roll in the hay at the start of the film, but otherwise his character is reduced to the status of a dirty old man, egging on the handsome Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) in his pursuit of the sharp-tongued young astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario). Captain Jack is down on his luck these days, without his beloved Black Pearl or a crew to sail her, and Depp looks as if he can empathize.

With Depp increasingly reduced to a character part, apparently the main idea is to hand the franchise over to a new generation. Orlando Bloom's Will Turner makes an initial appearance but only to set the plot in motion: he is an underwater ghost now, an impressively undead creature with barnacles eating at his flesh, and his son, Henry, vows to rescue him from this curse. To do so, he needs Poseidon's trident – don't ask; the plot, which mixes Hamlet, Greek mythology and the Flying Dutchman legend, is often incomprehensible – and the one person who knows where the magic pitchfork might be is the mysteriously orphaned and preternaturally wise Carina.

So Henry and Carina pair off, just as Will and Keira Knightley's Elizabeth did before them, but with a lot less sizzle from the story or the performers. Scodelario, a British actress known to fans of The Maze Runner movies, seems eager enough to step into Knightley's bossy boots with as much energy, if less salty charm, than her predecessor. The script, however, isn't helping her since her erudite character – a professional astronomer whom locals have branded a witch –is overstated and underdeveloped.

Thwaites, a young Australian who previously failed to register as the prince in Maleficent (to be fair, he was up against Angelina Jolie in horns), shows few signs of developing any acting ability. His performance is flat and marred by a particularly wooden delivery of the lines.

No, the notion that crowds will queue to see more of this pair seems farfetched. What is impressive about the film, however, are the special effects with a boatload of ghost sailors who are a whole lot scarier than the clunky skeletons that launched the franchise back in 2003. Bloom may look interesting with barnacles growing on his face, but wait until you see a digitized Javier Bardem with his skin falling to pieces as he plays the undead Captain Salazar, the embittered commander of a ghost ship sailed by a similarly disintegrating crew. Bardem creates another ripe yet solid villain here, recalling the depth of psychopathy he brought to that Bond baddie back in Skyfall.

And he's just as good in less campy flashbacks playing his character's living self, an authoritarian Spanish commander on a crusade to rid the seas of pirates. If Geoffrey Rush's repeat performance as the dastardly Captain Barbossa is growing almost as stale as Depp's Captain Jack, Salazar looks like a villain well worth reviving. (The logic of the film's supernatural world is so unreliable, I can't actually remember if that is narratively possible, but creative screenwriters revive dead characters every day of the week, so perhaps they can do it for undead, too.)

Another flashback points to more creative possibilities. In one scene, we are introduced to the young sailor whose remarkable swordsmanship and avian agility earn him the nickname Sparrow and the captaincy of a pirate ship. I guess if you put eyeliner and a head scarf on any swarthy looker, you would have a good ringer for Depp as Sparrow, but the Cuban-American newcomer Anthony De La Torre shows smouldering potential in his brief scenes especially when compared with the other young cast members. A prequel in which he played disruptor to Bardem's enforcer would be worth watching. Perhaps the real map to the Disney pirate treasure lies not in the future of a story, but in its past.

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