Very often, the dollar signs in a studio executive's eyes prove to be too powerful a draw, leading them to offer huge sums of money to stars to reprise their roles. A director is found who can, at the least, maintain the status quo and not kill the lucrative franchise. And a sequel is born. But sequels are almost always a case of diminishing returns, both financially and creatively. Such is the case with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films I hoped the series was killed by the critically panned third installment, but it made a bounty of cash. And before you could say "Davy Jones' Locker", Johnny Depp was offered a huge sum of money (I heard rumors of $40 million), a new director was brought on board (Rob Marshall, director of "Chicago", "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Nine") and producer Jerry Bruckheimer was able to offer Disney an almost certain money maker for Summer, 2011. This should help make up for his recent duds "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time".
The good news? "On Stranger Tides" is better than "At World's End", but that isn't saying much. It's not worth paying extra dollars to see in 3-D. It is worth, at most, the cost of a bargain matinee.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) crosses paths with an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who is posing as Jack to recruit a crew for a mysterious voyage. Jack is soon shanghaied and quickly learns Angelica is posing as Blackbeard's (Ian McShane) daughter in an effort to tag along as he searches for the fabled Fountain of Youth. Meanwhile, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has joined the Royal Navy and seems determined to use the new resources and power at his disposal to hunt down Blackbeard. Eventually, both groups will cross paths with a group of Spanish sailors who also seem to be looking for Ponce de Leon's treasure. Along the way, they try to collect pieces of the puzzle; legend dictates they will need the tear of a live mermaid and two of Ponce de Leon's silver chalices.
Directed by Rob Marshall and written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (among others), "On Stranger Tides" benefits from a few changes but suffers from some big narrative problems.
I'm not sure why the producers decided to leave Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley out of this adventure, but it was a good decision. Quite frankly, each looked both bored and angry at the same time throughout "At World's End". I really doubt they turned this installment down – if they were considered valuable enough, huge sums of money would have appeared to help entice them. It certainly worked with Depp. I have never been a fan of Bloom, but I do enjoy Knightley's work. That said, "Stranger Tides" seems to have more energy due to their absence. The filmmaker's still deemed it necessary to have a younger couple along for the ride so they have created a new couple, a young priest who falls in love with the mermaid they have captured. Their budding romance is sweet, but the two actors do not have the magnetism or presence of Bloom and Knightley.
At this point, it would just seem odd, just seem "straight-to-DVD" to have a new film without Captain Jack. Depp is so memorable in the role that Captain Jack has become part of the film lexicon, much like Hannibal Lecter, Ripley, Danny Ocean and others. That said, in the new film, Depp really doesn't do anything new with the character. Everything seems rehashed or recycled, from his exaggerated flouncing about to the mannerisms borrowed from Keith Richards (who makes an improbable cameo). He also continues to shift his allegiance from moment to moment; he wants to help Angelica, then he enters into an allegiance with Barbossa, then he seems to be out to find the Fountain of Youth for his own gain. This was amusing and fun to watch in the first film. Now, in #4 (and the already announced fifth installment), its just more of the same. When you think about Johnny Depp's work, that is usually the last thing that comes to mind. Its sad when a once formidable talent, who used to do strange, unusual and exciting work, begins to do work that can be described as 'more of the same'.
Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa fares about as well as Depp. From the moment he shows up dressed in Royal Navy garb, we know he is playing a game to achieve some goal. When the goal is revealed, it comes as no surprise. Rush is a very good actor who has done many very good films. But he is clearly in this film for the money. I can't fault him for wanting to collect a big paycheck, but he could've done more with the role.
Penelope Cruz is fine as Angelica. She runs around with a certain sense of abandon and seems to have fun in the role. But the whole 'posing as Blackbeard's daughter' ruse is never explained or justified and just seems odd.
Ian McShane is the best part of this new movie. As Blackbeard, he introduces a new character, a new menace and it is fun to see this character come to life. When we first meet the fabled pirate, he leaves his stateroom to address his crew. Upset, he barely raises his voice, but his character and figure are still alarming, still menacing. His beard, the ends braided, is on fire. Why? Who knows, but he doesn’t seem to notice or care.
Marshall seems to have fun breathing life into this story. The action scenes seem a little madcap and lively. In fact, I get the definite sense they are trying to shift the balance back to hand-to-hand combat away from heavy CGI work. There are a lot of personal fights and sword battles and very little heavy computer graphics. This is a nice idea, almost as though they are paying homage to the pirate and swashbuckler films of the 40s and 50s. Really, Depp's Sparrow is not that far from Burt Lancaster's "The Crimson Pirate". At least in temperament and tone.
An early scene in London provides an excuse for Sparrow to escape from the Royal Guard by jumping from the roof of one moving carriage to the next, swinging from bunting and falling into the lap of a very surprising cameo. Later, the swordfights and a scene between Sparrow and Barbossa aboard Ponce de Leon's shipwreck, all help to recreate the sense of daring and speed we love about the first (and maybe the second) "Pirates" films.
As Angelica is an old flame, Sparrow turns on the charm, trying to flirt his way back into her good graces. But these moments are too familiar and become boring. He tries the same moves on Keira Knightley in the first three films, with the same success rate, the same reactions and the same expressions when they don't work. Well, she isn't receptive this time, best to keep trying… And trying… And trying. The difference between Cruz's Angelica and Knightley's Elizabeth is that Angelica is allowed to flirt back every so often. Elizabeth was attached to (shudder) Will, Bloom's character. It took all of her energy to create something with that vacuum of emotion, she didn't have anything left for Depp. But seriously, because she and Will are always circling one another, and because these are Disney films, she couldn't show any interest or return Captain Jack's attentions. In "Stranger Tides", Angelica masquerades as Blackbeard's "daughter", leaving her free to flirt a little because she is romantically unattached.
I found the last "Pirates" film to be a complete misfire. It seemed like director Gore Verbinski was trying to legitimize the success of the series and make a 'serious' pirate film. That film runs for two hours and forty five minutes and the characters stand around and talk for a good two hours. These are popcorn films. Yes, we need story, we need character development. But if the writer(s) and director have their jobs well, they have created a viable, visual, interesting universe for the characters to inhabit. If they have done their job really well, they don't need to legitimize anything and the audience will enjoy the ride. For "At World's End", they didn't do their jobs that well.
So for "Stranger Tides", they made some changes. Depp is in practically every frame of the film, a big change from the last film. There is also very little exposition. If they take any time to elaborate the plot, they do so right before, during or right after some action. Marshall seems to get what this film should be. It should be fun. The amped up action and Jack's increased presence are good changes.
But the film suffers from too little exposition. The opening scenes in London involve Jack posing as a judge in an attempt to free his long-suffering First Mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally). Much later, they cross paths again and this seems to remind Jack of the man's very existence. Why go to so much trouble and risk to save someone only to completely forget about them? Later, there is a pretty significant plot hole which isn't necessary. Because the writers and director are creating this universe, they are creating the rules. If you have to break your own rules, you didn't do a good enough job in the first place.
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is a step in the right direction. It features a good performance by McShane, but it is still far away from the magic of the first film.