Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Director : Rob Marshall
Screenplay : Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (suggested by the novel by Tim Powers; based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow), Penélope Cruz (Angelica), Geoffrey Rush (Hector Barbossa), Ian McShane (Blackbeard), Kevin McNally (Gibbs), Sam Claflin (Philip), Astrid Berges-Frisbey (Syrena), Stephen Graham (Scrum), Keith Richards (Captain Teague), Richard Griffiths (King George), Greg Ellis (Groves), Damian O’Hare (Gillette), Óscar Jaenada (The Spaniard), Anton Lesser (Lord John Carteret), Roger Allam (Prime Minister Henry Pelham), Judi Dench (Society Lady)
After the one-two punch of 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, which ran a combined 320 minutes and took every fantastical pirate cliché imaginable and bloated them to epic proportions, it is hard to imagine that there were many cries for a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. What more could possibly done that hadn’t already? Yet, here we are, four years later, with a fourth installment called On Stranger Tides that, while considerably leaner than the last two entries in terms of both running time and narrative convolution, is still a sizable beast in its own right. And, while not without some charm and a few rousing sequences, On Stranger Tides nevertheless feels largely unnecessary, especially in the way it forces us to realize that Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, who was such a refreshing breath of subversive air back in 2003, is starting to wear a little thin.
Jack’s back, of course, as is Hector Barbossa (Geoffery Rush), his pirate nemesis who was killed in the first movie (although technically he was already a cursed zombie at that point) and then resurrected in the third. Jack is drawn into a three-way race to find the fabled Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Léon supposedly discovered 200 years earlier. Jack finds himself in league with Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a fiery former lover who has joined forces with the legendary Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the pirate that all other pirates fear, as Jack puts it. They are competing against both a fleet of Spanish ships and Barbossa, who has conned the British government into making him an official captain in their navy, although his real goal is revenge against Blackbeard, who cost him a leg. Like the previous films, there is plenty of supernatural hocus-pocus to keep the digital wizards behind the scenes busy, including a subplot involving the necessity of capturing a mermaid, which leads to an extensive sequence in which the characters find themselves under attack by hoards of mermaids who, in this world, are vicious, fanged monsters that screech and attack like rabid animals (with the exception of Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s Syrena, who proves that not all mermaids are killers).
Compared to the previous films, the plot is downright simplistic. Returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have clearly learned the lesson that more isn’t always better, although their borrowing of plot elements from Tim Powers’ 1987 novel On Stranger Tides suggests that they may have run up against a creative wall in trying to concoct new adventures for Disney’s pirate cottage industry. Given the popularity of his character, Depp does very little to expand on Jack, instead giving us the same penchant for devil-may-care foppishness, self-interested conniving, and well-time one-liners (interestingly, his eye liner seems to have gotten thicker over the years while his speech has become less slurred). McShane makes Blackbeard into a worthy adversary--all gruff bluster and no-nonsense determination, while Penélope Cruz’s Angelica, who should be a more memorable character, gets lost amidst all the chaos, which severely undercuts any sense of tension between her and Jack.
Director Rob Marshall, who takes the reins from Gore Verbinski, is clearly trying to lay claim to widespread popularity again since the critical and commercial thuds of Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Nine (2009) following his Oscar-winning hit Chicago (2002). If he could resurrect the musical (if only temporarily), surely he could breathe new life into a pirate franchise, but it is actually quite the opposite. While On Stranger Tides is by no means terrible, it isn’t particularly good either, and the parts that work draw most of their goodwill from our memories of the previous films. Marshall is a competent director, and some of the actions scenes have the kind of swash-buckling thrills that fans have come to love (especially a chase through the streets of London with Jack leaping from carriage to carriage), but a lot of it feels like little more than going through the motions: a sword fight here, some double entendres there. He doesn’t have Verbinski’s flair for the baroque and the bizarre, so the movie feels more tamped down. It says something that the movie’s comic highpoint is when Jack finds his face buried in Dame Judi Dench’s bosom (although Richard Griffiths gives a wonderfully venal, puffy performance as King George II). The result is a movie with a lot of moving parts, but not much forward momentum.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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