Since the second installment, “Dead Man’s Chest”, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise has been trying to get back to the fun it had with the original, “The Curse of the Black Pearl”. With a name that makes little sense considering the film’s content, “On Stranger Tides” almost makes it back to square one, but largely feels like an adventure to set up another trilogy.
The film lacks the familiarity of many older characters. Only four characters return from the previous films: Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Gibbs (Kevin McNally), a cameo by Captain Teague (Keith Richards) and, of course, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Otherwise, we’re starting fresh, though I imagine the script originally called for the talents of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley and then went through several revisions. So our favorite pirate moves through the stranger tides of new faces and a past love interest, Angelica (Penélope Cruz). Unlike the previous two films, “Pirates 4” is a stand-alone story. Sure, there’s a teaser for the next film, but this one has a clear ending.
Captain Jack finds himself in England, trying to save his loyal first mate, Gibbs, when he stumbles upon the evil Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who’s hell-bent on finding the Fountain of Youth before his prophesied death. But Blackbeard ain’t the only one out there trying to cheat death, as both England and Spain are hot on the trail. Barbossa quit the piracy gig and joined up with the English navy, while the Black Pearl (that magical ship Jack and Barby both captained) and her crew has vanished.
In place of the prudish Will Turner (Bloom) and uptight Elizabeth Swan (Knightley), we have a devout man, Philip (Sam Claflin), and the mermaid, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). While Will and Elizabeth had the class system against them, Phil and Ariel’s cousin must find a way to make their love work when gills and fins create a greater void than any stuffy British setting.
Captain Jack might be the role Depp is most known for, but he doesn’t really do much here. As “The Tourist” proved last fall, the actor seems tired. I imagine “On Stranger Tides” attempts to focus solely on Jack to highlight the franchise’s most popular character. Sadly, all this does is give the man too much screen time without anyone balancing him out. We lack any real connection to other characters, even Gibbs and Barbossa. The plotline frantically tries to recapture the conniving of the first film (whose side is Jack on?), but everything just goes haywire in the third act as there doesn’t seem to be a set villain.
Rush has the pirate persona down just as much as Depp, but (yawn) he’s just there. Cruz is decent, but she mostly fills in for Knightley. The real lifesaver here is McShane. He plays a complex villain, equal parts caring father and murdering scallywag. McShane proves an unsung hero (well, villain, but you get the point). Hopefully his high-profile performance will hoist him to new box-office heights in the future.
Gore Verbinski was a unique choice for the original trilogy, so it’s no surprise that Disney was willing to let a director known for musicals, Rob Marshall, take over the reigns. After all, Marshall did receive critical recognition for “Chicago”…almost 10 years ago. Too bad his last film was “Nine”, disastrously boring. His adventure over the open sea does mark the first significant thing he’s done since 2002.
“Pirates 4” is an enjoyable enough film, but for my money, I’d rather see “Thor” again. See it once and perhaps you’ll remember the better times when “Pirates of the Caribbean” first premiered and truly tapped into an enchanting adventure before it became a soulless cash cow, much like most Jerry Bruckheimer productions that speak loud and think little.
I know, I know. “Pirates 4” made back its production budget in the opening weekend, but most of that moviegoing stems from a nostalgic hope for replicating the first film’s formula. I guess we’ll just have to wait until part five to see if they can.
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