Film Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Although it tries to give the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise a fresh start, this lackluster fourth installment instead confirms that the series' charms have worn off.

Looking back, it’s increasingly clear that the primary reason for the success of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was its novelty value. Certainly at the time, few expected that a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced high-seas pirate adventure based on a Disney theme-park ride and starring respected but commercially challenged actor Johnny Depp would be anything but a hot mess. And, to be perfectly honest, Black Pearl is a noticeably ragged production—a wild, overlong mixture of tones, styles and semi-coherent story points just barely held together by Depp’s live-wire performance as cheerfully duplicitous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, certainly one of the most unique characters to anchor a Hollywood blockbuster in the past decade. But the movie’s messiness is also a big part of its charm; no doubt aware that the film could effectively end their careers, Depp and director Gore Verbinski nevertheless seem determined to just relax and have as much fun with the material as possible. Their shoot-the-moon enthusiasm comes through onscreen and, more than anything, that’s what audiences responded to that summer. In a movie season otherwise populated by grim-faced superheroes (X2), grim-faced computer hackers (The Matrix Reloaded) and grim-faced killer cyborgs (Terminator 3), at least Jack Sparrow knew how to crack a smile and did so often.

That playful spirit promptly vanished when Bruckheimer and Disney decided to turn their unlikely one-off success into an ongoing franchise. Released in the summers of 2006 and 2007, respectively, the sequels Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are astonishingly leaden affairs, marred by nonsensical plotting, repetitive action sequences and the unnecessary return of young lovers Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley), whose story was brought to a natural conclusion at the end of the first film. Thankfully, the latest Pirates adventure, On Stranger Tides, jettisons those two pieces of dead weight, moving Sparrow to the center of the action and giving him a new crop of co-stars to play off, including Penélope Cruz and Ian McShane. (Aside from Depp, the only returning faces from the previous films are Geoffrey Rush as Sparrow’s sometime nemesis/sometime collaborator Barbossa, Kevin R. McNally as his reluctant Man Friday Mr. Gibbs and Keith Richards as his proud papa Captain Teague.)

What the film still can’t recapture, however, are the feelings of surprise and joy that came with watching Jack Sparrow in action for the first time. Depp’s commitment to the role that made him a box-office superstar hasn’t wavered across four films, but one gets the sense that he’s done just about all he can with the character. At this point, he’s just going through the motions…much like the movie itself.

Loosely adapted from a book by Tim Powers that has been retrofitted to accommodate Sparrow as its (anti)-hero, On Stranger Tides is centered around a high-stakes race to find the elusive Fountain of Youth. The contestants in this adventure include a group of nameless Spaniards, an English expedition funded by King George II (Richard Griffiths, in a brief cameo) and led by Barbossa and the pirate vessel Queen Anne’s Revenge, which carries aboard it the fearsome buccaneer Blackbeard (McShane), his daughter (and Sparrow’s former fling) Angelica (Cruz) and the forcibly recruited Captain Jack.
The route leads them all to a remote Caribbean island filled with lush jungles and surrounded by roving packs of vicious mermaids, whose tears are apparently required to activate the Fountain’s magic. In an effective sequence, Blackbeard uses his own crew as bait to capture one of these creatures, resulting in a battle where more than a few pirates are dragged under the sea and devoured. (The Little Mermaid this isn’t.) One mermaid (Astrid Bergés-Frisbey) is unlucky enough to fall into his clutches and unluckier still to be saddled with the movie’s most insipid subplot, a lifeless romance with a pious missionary (Sam Claflin) whose presence on Blackbeard’s ship is never satisfactorily explained. Eventually, all the competing camps converge on the Fountain and engage in a chaotic final battle that leaves some major characters desperately in need of its healing properties.

Since Verbinski declined to return for a fourth go-round, Bruckheimer tapped Rob Marshall—best known as the director of the movie musicals Chicago and Nine (we’ll do him a favor and pretend Memoirs of a Geisha never happened)—to replace him. On paper at least, it’s not as odd a choice as you might think. A strong case could be made that some of the same skills that go into choreographing dance numbers can also be applied to staging action sequences. In fact, early on, there’s a swordfight between Sparrow and Angelica that resembles a kind of pas de deux, with the actors (or, more likely, their stunt doubles) gracefully trading blows and gliding out of harm’s way.

But aside from this scene and the aforementioned mermaid attack, Marshall seems lost during the more heavily populated and effects-filled set-pieces, which noticeably lack the combination of thrills and laughs that were present in the first film. In general, On Stranger Tides is plodding and heavy-handed when it should be breezy and light. There’s no energy to the action, no snap to the humor, and the performances are curiously muted, as if the other actors are afraid of upstaging Depp. Tasked with playing the Marion Ravenwood to Sparrow’s Indiana Jones, Cruz goes out of her way to avoid engaging her co-star and even McShane, who, as “Deadwood” fans know, excels at being the bad guy, is a surprisingly bland foil here. Captain Jack Sparrow swaggered into moviegoers’ hearts eight years ago, but based on this outing, it may be time for him to set sail on a permanent Caribbean cruise.