Before I get into discussing On Stranger Tides, let me just state for the record that I have never cared about any of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. I’ve never been caught up in the worldwide hype; never been enamored of Johnny Depp’s drunken Keith Richards-as-a-pirate shtick; never been emotionally invested in the romance between Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom; and hell, after the first movie, I’ve never been very clear on what exactly any of the characters are doing or what they’re after. The third film, At World’s End, had so many curses, compasses, dream sequences, and double and triple-crosses amongst the characters, that it became laughable.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with making epic pirate films; a good tale of skullduggery and adventure on the high seas should be epic. What they shouldn’t be, is pretentious, plodding, and overly convoluted to the point of incoherence. The Disney execs, realizing this, set out to scrape the barnacles off the hull of their quickly sinking ship by slashing the budget, scaling down the CGI, and stripping the story down to focus more on character. The result is a PoC movie that, despite being instantly forgettable, is more coherent and entertaining than its predecessors.
Clocking it at 137 minutes; On Stranger Tides is the leanest and meanest of the Pirates films, which says a lot about how overstuffed and ostentatious the other installments truly were. The main thrust of the film finds Johnny Depp’s now-iconic Captain Jack Sparrow and a number of other characters including Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and a detachment of the Spanish Navy, searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. In order to unlock the secrets of the Fountain, they need a map, two silver chalices (last seen with the Fountain’s discoverer, Ponce De Leon), and the magical tear of a captured Mermaid. Yes, really.
It becomes obvious right away that new franchise helmer Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine)doesn’t shoot action as well as Verbinski, but there are some fun scenes, like Jack’s clever and frenetic escape from the heart of King George’s palace to a rousing carriage chase on the streets of London, and a terrific set piece where Blackbeard’s crew are first enraptured, then assaulted by beautiful but vicious mermaids. Marshall does do quite well reproducing the scope and cinematography of the previous films, despite the reduced budget and lack of CGI monsters.
The sets and costumes are particularly excellent, especially Blackbeard’s monstrous and ornate ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge. And speaking of Blackbeard, Deadwood’s Ian McShane cuts a menacing figure as “The pirate all pirates fear”, employing zombified buccaneers as crew, and using his enchanted cutlass to command the ship’s rigging to come to life and ensnare mutinous sailors in its ropes. Sadly, the menace of Blackbeard is never truly realized, and ultimately the character is wasted in a climactic sequence that is essentially a rip off of the last ten minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The absolute low point in Stranger Tides is an utterly superfluous love story between Philip (Sam Claflin),a Bible-toting man of faith, and the captured Mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The flow of the movie comes to a grinding halt whenever we are forced to watch these two vapid, low-rent replacements for Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley befoul the screen with their overwhelming dullness. It’s a pandering, clumsy attempt at a star-crossed romance shoehorned into the script to appeal to the female quotient in the audience looking for their fix of cheap, bodice-ripping Harlequin storytelling. The time wasted on these bores would’ve been better spent on the relationship between Jack and Angelica – a romantic story that actually showed some spark in the early goings, but was brushed away in favor of the aforementioned 18th century Splash nonsense and silly sequences of Jack hopping on palm trees, dropping coconuts on Spanish sailors’ heads.
And what about Mr. Depp? Does his fourth turn as Jack Sparrow crackle, or is he just collecting another seven-figure Disney paycheck? How does Jack Sparrow function as a protagonist without Bloom and Knightley around to bounce off of? Well, Depp isn’t visibly phoning it in here, but it’s clear to anyone who has seen the Curse of the Black Pearl, that the shine is wearing off for him. The film also doesn’t suffer from the absence of Knightley and Bloom at all, thanks in most part to Geoffrey Rush nearly stealing the show with his performance as the always enjoyable salty scaliwag, Captain Barbossa. Rush chews the scenery here masterfully, both as a foil and as an ally to Jack Sparrow. His character’s arc is the most interesting one in the film, and has the most satisfying resolution.
I read recently that the character of Jack Sparrow is the closest thing the current movie-going generation has to an icon like Indiana Jones. If that’s true, I smell a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the winds. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise isn’t a bloated, barnacle-covered corpse washed up on the shores of Tortuga Bay just yet, but that time is rapidly approaching.
I’ve never been a huge fan of this franchise (The third film is an absolute mess), but this fourth installment looks pretty entertaining, mostly because it seems like it has a more coherent storyline and they scaled the CGI shenanigans back quite a bit. Plus, Ian McShane is a total badass here as Blackbeard. Look for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in theaters on May 20th, 2011.