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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Captain Jack Will Make You Sigh Tonight

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a refreshing movie--if you need a catnap before driving home from the theatre.  Yep, I fell asleep four times watching this the other night, and am not ashamed to admit it.  I think the longest I was out was two minutes, but not once did I kick myself for having missed anything.

"But, Ian, how can you review a movie that you didn't fully see?"

Like so...

At the end of the third (and supposedly final) Pirates film, I was glad to see the franchise sail off into the sunset.  It had become a nest of bloated-to-bursting barnacles whose stories were so convoluted that I doubt even the actors could have told you what their characters' motivations were.  But because the franchise is pure Disney product, we were teased with the prospect of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his former-enemy-turned-frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) setting out to find the fountain of youth.

I didn't hate that idea.  In fact, I thought scaling back on the epic plots and superfluous characters of the previous films could allow Sparrow and Barbossa to have a fun, original adventure.  When I heard that the sub-title for the fourth installment was On Stranger Tides, I got excited.

Silly me.  The only thing strange about this film is the fact that the screenwriters of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade haven't sued the hell out of Disney and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio for plagiarism.  Granted, the Tim Powers novel on which Pirates 4 is allegedly based came out in 1987--two years before Last Crusade; but I'd bet my house that more people saw the third Indy film than read that book--meaning someone took a huge gamble on both the audience's apathy and non-existent attention span.

I should warn you that I'm about to spoil the entire movie.  Though you need only turn away if you're one of the five people in the audience who couldn't figure out exactly what would happen before the opening title sequence.  Jack Sparrow sets out to find the fountain of youth.  He finds it.  Barbossa joins up with the Royal Navy to procure the fountain's secrets for the king and settle a score with the fierce pirate lord Blackbeard (Ian McShane).  Barbossa betrays the Brits and briefly teams up with Jack to fulfill a prophecy in which he kills Blackbeard.  He kills Blackbeard.

Actually, he mortally wounds Blackbeard--setting the stage for a dramatic climax where Sparrow performs a ritual involving two chalices that have been filled with the water of eternal life.  Blackbeard must choose the correct one in order to live forever; if he chooses correctly, his daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz)--who's also been mortally wounded--will die.  He drinks from the cup and feels fine, until Jack reveals that he actually chose the wrong one; at which point Blackbeard is skinned alive by the winds of fate or something and his skeleton gets blown apart.

A lot more happens in the movie, but none of it means anything.  That sounds like an exaggeration, but I'm serious: None of the side stories or main plot points change the characters from where they were at the end of the last film.  We meet a handsome, young missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin) who helps Jack and Blackbeard transport a supermodel/mermaid named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to the fountain (the fountain's rejuvenating properties only kick in when mixed with mermaid tears).  These attractive but utterly blank and useless kids are meant to fill in for Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, but reminded me more of Anakin and Padme from the Star Wars prequels.

As for the villain, McShane isn't given anything to do with Blackbeard except look sad when he's not yelling.  He turns a mythical butcher into a recluse who sometimes comes out of his cabin to weave some magic and pine for a relationship with his long, lost daughter.  It's fitting, though, as the quality of this series' antagonists has declined exponentially; this incarnation of Blackbeard doesn't barely registers compared to the wicked Barbossa of the first picture or Bill Nighy's boring-as-a-character-but-interesting-to-look-at Davy Jones from parts two and three.

McShane's visible lack of enthusiasm underscores a huge problem with On Stranger Tides: There are so many modern icons on the screen servicing a barely-written script that I have to wonder if the actors simply have no taste, or are just that easily bought off.  Dame Judy Dench pops up for thirty seconds at the beginning of the film to, I suppose, keep from defaulting on one of her homes between Bond films.

Keith Richards again surfaces as Jack Sparrow's dad.  When Depp revealed a few years ago that his Sparrow character was partially inspired by the Rolling Stones guitarist, everyone thought it would be awesome to see ol' Keith actually play the part.  When he popped up in the third movie, many people enjoyed a solid laugh of recognition, but that was it.  In this film, we don't even get that.  Richards' cameo is as distracting and unnecessary as the amusement-park-robot performance Depp gives for the entire film.

It may be hard to recall, but there was a time when Johnny Depp was an actor, and not just a movie star.  He used to take interesting roles and make bold choices with them--including, I'd argue, the original incarnation of Jack Sparrow in Gore Verbinski's first Pirates film.  Sparrow was a drunk and a rogue, but he was also a serious pirate, a legend.

On Stranger Tides sees Sparrow (and Depp) coasting on that reputation; now he's just a menace-free clown who gets swept along into grand adventure, rather than charting his own course. He's a slurring Bugs Bunny; a boozy, buccaneer Borat--minus the charm or ability to surprise an audience.  So little is required of Depp at this point that I'm sure Disney is looking to trim his $35 million salary (!!!) for the next installment by simply inserting footage from the previous films into whatever tropical locations they've scouted as backdrops.

Sorry if I've rained on anyone's parade. But, seriously, is it too much to ask that I be presented with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour adventure that's actually exciting?  Am I the only one who considers it a bad sign that my enjoyment and understanding of the film was in no way undercut by my having slept through part of it?  All the wacky stunts, finely detailed period costumes and protracted dialogue scenes give the film the illusion of epic heft, but they can't disguise the lack of wit, imagination and soul that some of us still look for in the movies.

Note: I didn't mention director Rob Marshall because there's nothing noteworthy in his direction here. He apparently blew all his pizzazz on Chicago ten years ago, and is now content to match the blandness of the previous two Pirates movies precisely.  I can no more assess his skills as a filmmaker based on this movie than I could judge a fry-making contest at McDonald's.

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Reader Comments (1)

Nude mermaids would have made the movie more exciting but I agree with you that this movie is pretty bland and has no direction. I can hardly wait to see the next movie if you want to call it that about as much as a kick in the crotch.

May 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerick Moser

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