Silver Screen: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides *1/2
The third sequel in the Pirates of the Caribbean series was hardly a necessity-- have there ever been four good installments of any film franchise?-- but it did provide ample opportunity to eliminate the weakest elements of the story. After the surprisingly entertaining first movie, the series became mired in a convoluted mythology that added nothing to the maritime thrills and overcomplicated the movies' already frenetic narrative. Costars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, barely tolerable in the inaugural chapter, became dead weight, and their inclusion in the events felt forced, their storyline long since resolved. As the movies stretched past the two-and-a-half-hour mark individually, they became a swirling, maddening mess in which the series' real assets-- big action setpieces, great special effects, and most of all Johnny Depp's mischievous, mincing Captain Jack Sparrow-- became lost.
That new series director Rob Marshall (Chicago), taking over for Gore Verbinski, jettisoned Knightley and Bloom altogether to focus on Captain Jack suggested that if the filmmakers were going to pander to their audience, they were at least going to do it well. It's like a cake made entirely out of frosting, or a carton of Oreos from which the workmanlike chocolate wafers have been raptured, leaving only sweet, sweet cream filling.
But alas, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides winds up making all the same mistakes of the past two movies and then some. Everything about it feels tired and obligatory, and once again an excess of subplots and distractions bloats the running time (to about two-and-a-quarter hours this go 'round) and turns a summer-movie trifle into a protracted and dull experience.
A totally uninspired prologue serves as an early warning that screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are pretty much out of ideas, but if there was any question that we're all about to go through the motions, the opening scene confirms it. First Mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally), survivor of the original Pirates trilogy, is hauled before a British court for piracy as Captain Jack Sparrow. He protests that he is not in fact the wily captain, but the final say rests in the hands of a slouching, bewigged judge who never quite shows his face. I wonder who that could be?
After a protracted chase scene and a perfunctory swordfight, Jack Sparrow is hauled before the King of England, who is in search of a map to the Fountain of Youth. The Brits are hellbent on beating the Spaniards to the fabled source of eternal life, and they've conscripted former sea dog Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush-- wasn't he a skeleton or something before?) to lead the hunt. Gibbs, who has memorized the map, is kidnapped and forced to navigate for the British crew, while Jack escapes and hooks up with another interested party: his former flame Angelica (Pené lope Cruz), daughter of the legendary baddie Blackbeard (Deadwood's Ian McShane). Blackbeard believes in a prophecy that foretells his death within the month, and he's convinced the Fountain is his only source of redemption. Thus it becomes a three-way race to see who can find Ponce de Leon's discovery first.
It's a decent enough excuse for some high-seas shenanigans, but it's utterly flubbed in the execution. Once again Rossio and Elliot manage to turn the proceedings into a pageant of distractions. Somehow they dredge up a character more boring than Bloom's lovelorn swordsmith, in this case a dullard of a missionary (Sam Claflin) who sees the good in a murderous mermaid and falls in love with her. During the back half of the film, their utterly directionless and completely unfulfilled subplot threatens to overtake the entire story while ostensible stars Cruz and McShane nearly vanish altogether. Both McShane and Rush are criminally underused, considering their performances account for two-thirds of what makes the movie passable in the first place.
Pirates' only other ace in the hole is Depp, who is still a hoot to watch doing his Hunter S. Thompson of the high seas riff, with a little Keith Richards thrown in for good measure. It's a familiar schtick by now, but it's still a good one, if a little past its sell-by date.
Director Marshall brings almost nothing to the table, unless enveloping everything in a layer of fog counts as stylistic flair. He is to the smoke machine what John Woo is to doves taking flight in slow motion, or what Brando was to the on-set catering table. While previous director Verbinski lost control of his story and never really picked it back up again, he was at least an ace technician with a painterly eye for imagery, and he could stage a thrilling setpiece. Marshall can't handle any of the action sequences, reducing them to weak choreography and a series of choppy edits. Thus the fourth Pirates becomes an action movie without exciting action, a thrill ride that moves sluggishly, and a star-powered vehicle that shows too little of its stars. It's a jumble of distractions and MacGuffins that ultimately feels like flying all the way around the world just to go next door.
You'll note, by the way, that this review is entirely free of pirate puns, nautical language, and sailing metaphors. You are welcome.