Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
I'm kind of giddy that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise reached a fourth installment. Critics aren't supposed to think such things because Hollywood franchising is killing our souls, destroying real cinematic creativity and making Baby Jesus cry, etc. But contemplate a series of multi-multimillion-dollar action blockbusters built entirely around a protagonist who's vaguely effeminate, frequently cowardly and generally disreputable — basically an anti-hero.
Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is the kind of character who should be too idiosyncratic to become a pop-culture icon, yet here Depp is, once again donning smudgy guy-liner. In reality, I don't think anyone really understands what to do with Captain Jack.
On Stranger Tides should have been an opportunity to free Sparrow from the burden of the earlier films' Will/Elizabeth romance and pretzel-logic plotting. Instead, we find Sparrow in London, dashing from a bungled attempt to break his old first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) out of prison to a search for whoever is putting together a ship's crew while posing as Sparrow. The fake Sparrow turns out to be Angelica (Penélope Cruz), an old flame of the real Sparrow who's serving as first mate for the legendary, much-feared Blackbeard (Ian McShane) on a quest for the Fountain of Youth.
Meanwhile, the British Crown has also launched an expedition for the Fountain, led by Sparrow's old frenemy Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who now sports a peg-leg thanks to a run-in with Blackbeard — who has some supernatural power over ships related to his sword — that left The Black Pearl miniaturized in a bottle.
Also meanwhile, the French become a third competitor to reach the Fountain and there's a romantic connection between an earnest missionary (Sam Claflin) on Blackbeard's ship and a captive mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) ...
Oh. My. God. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer brought back screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to loosely adapt a Sparrow-free novel by Tim Powers, so apparently Bruckheimer was of the opinion that more of the same was exactly what was called for. And the creative team — with director Rob Marshall replacing Gore Verbinski — seems to have learned little from the mistakes of the past, while adding new ones. The attempt to give Sparrow a romantic subplot feels like a misunderstanding of the character's nature, and there's never a genuine spark between Depp and Cruz.
Meanwhile, the franchise gets its most confusing villain in Blackbeard, whose "I'm just a bad man" motivations don't give the formidable McShane much to work with. Marshall simply can't keep all the plots dancing in unison.
And yet, he still has a virtuoso soloist in Depp, which means there's fun to be had whenever he's reveling in his Sparrow-ness. His marble-mouthed line-readings are still a joy, and there's a particular appeal to the scenes in which he and Rush get to play off their characters' history. Whenever On Stranger Tides has the good sense to grant center stage to the reason we're all here in the first place, it feels like the funky anti-blockbuster the series has always shown glimmers of being.
But it's somewhat indicative of what On Stranger Tides fails to understand, that the climactic showdown involves a to-the-death duel between Blackbeard and Barbossa. Part of Jack Sparrow's appeal has always been his efforts to avoid physical confrontation when out-smarting his opponent will do. His most stubborn adversary continues to be the stories in which he's stuck.