One thing is certain: a reduction in scale, a change in director, and the absence of some of the leads of the previous films doesn’t hurt Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is more or less the same film as the previous three.
You pay your money and you get what you expect, namely a generous heaping of Johnny Depp swagger carrying another bloated and muddled Pirates entry. The picture also benefits from being the only item of its kind on the market; despite the franchise’s wild success, I don’t believe there’s been another swashbuckler of note since the first film made a splash.
Sure, there’s plenty to like. The subtraction of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley (whose characters were central to the plots of the previous film, if not the films themselves) frees On Stranger Tides from a lot of dead weight, even though Depp’s Jack Sparrow remains too passive a protagonist to really root for. Regardless, they’re not missed.
And the newcomers to the cast shine: Stephen Graham’s Scrum more than affably fills in for Mackenzie Crook’s Ragetti as Sparrow’s de facto sidekick, Penélope Cruz is a lot of fun as Angelica, Sparrow’s female equivalent and former love, and Ian McShane, taking his role slightly more seriously than his co-stars, manages to be at least half-menacing as Angelica’s father, the famous pirate Blackbeard.
The plot is here considerably condensed. When a Spanish fleet fishes a man out of the ocean who claims to have travelled with Ponce de León 200 years prior, King Ferdinand orders his men to set sail in search of the fountain of youth. Hearing this, King George (Richard Griffiths, terrific in his single scene) follows suit, hiring undead ex-pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to lead the expedition. The King also attempts to get Jack Sparrow – and his map to the fountain – to go along, but Sparrow manages to escape during a London chase sequence.
Meanwhile, a Jack Sparrow imposter is organizing yet another expedition to the mystical fountain. This is Angelica, we soon learn, who kidnaps the real Jack to help lead Blackbeard to the fountain to stave off imminent death. Like Sparrow, we’re never sure of Angelica’s motives; she seems to be obscuring the facts with every sentence. “You lied to me by telling me the truth?” Sparrow asks her at one point. Note to Jack: she might still be lying.
One problem: no one stopped to consider audience involvement in the proceedings. So these three factions are out to find the fountain of life. The Spanish aren’t given enough screen time to muster interest. Nor the British. Barbossa’s intentions aren’t revealed till near the end.
Sparrow doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. That leaves Angelica and Blackbeard. Are we rooting for them to find the fountain? Rooting against them? Of course, the answer is neither; as the events unfold, we do identify most with Sparrow in that we just don’t give a damn.
On Stranger Tides was directed by Rob Marshall, taking over for Gore Verbinski, who directed the previous three; few are likely to notice any actual differences, though Verbinski had less command of story, but a much greater command of style. This Pirates is a dim, often murky-looking affair, which might be excused since this was a 3D production, but then I saw it in 2D. Even in 2D, we get the gimmicky shots of swords and snakes and other items thrown out of the screen.
You might expect some nicely choreographed fight scenes from Marshall, the former musical theater director who brought Chicago and Nine to the screen. Indeed, I could sense that some amount of care went into the staging of the action scenes; they’re shot with a stationary camera, and make nice use of background objects.
But all was lost in the editing process, which splices together mismatched shots at breakneck speed for dizzying effect. Since roughly half of the film is action sequences, this is a major detraction.
Of the four Pirates films, I think I prefer the second, though I recall little of that film outside the giant wheel and surreal dream sequences. These films all blend together for me, but audiences looking for familiarity will find a friend in On Stranger Tides.
Stick around after the credits for a brief (but decent) extra scene.