Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, Sam Claflin, Richard Griffiths
The Pirates of the Caribbean series - rather like Piers Morgan, or a sugar-rushed younger sibling - is a commodity that annoyingly won't go away. While it has retained a level of watchability throughout, only 2003's opener, "The Curse of the Black Pearl," falls anywhere close to a coherent action-adventure film. The previous two instalments were particularly zealous in piling on characters and story strands to generate suspense within the narrative, and rashly so: Verbinski's 'more is more' approach left perilled characters marooned in thanklessly overblown action sequences and token romances. Enter "Chicago" director Rob Marshall to rescue the tired franchise -- a man who needs a little rejuvenation of his own, given that his work ever since that 2002 musical has fallen on seemingly deaf ears.
"On Stranger Tides" begins having excised the ivory inefficacy of Orlando Bloom and the porcelain smirk of his bourgeois wench Keira Knightley. Produced four years after "At Worlds End" (the other three films were completed in that same space of time) there has clearly been a move towards resurrecting the basic approach of "Black Pearl," with its modestly-layered formation of black magic, romance, and personal gain. The addition to the "Tides" arsenal comes in the form of Ian McShane as Blackbeard and, particularly, Penelope Cruz as his estranged daughter Anjelica, a steamy ex-lover of perennial favourite Captain Jack Sparrow. This time out the pesky historical artefact of desire is the Fountain Of Youth, of which the age-reversing powers are sought after by several characters, including the monarchs of England and Spain.
As much as is regained by banishing Bloom, Knightley, Hollander, Davenport, Crook etc. is cancelled out by the tendency to fall back into similar habits and rhythms. The reined-in cast list and cleaner script allow for us to at least surmise where each character roughly is at any given time, and there's a decent plain of scope upon which to observe the ruckus and swagger. And still, as is with many 21st century period depictions, "On Stranger Tides" has a pretty dull and sketchy view of London in this time period, emulating the recent travesty of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes in turning a bustling wonderland of a city into an ugly, characterless platform for its stunts and chases. It's astonishing that twenty years after Steven Spielberg created such a vibrant haven of fantasy and magic in Hook (regardless of the film's other faults) current action adventures find it so difficult to provide dimensionality to their locations. A trip to Nightcap Bay (where mermaids love to massacre) is a recovery in this regard, but it still feels as if the visual techniques of the Pirates mould are erring recklessly towards grainy and saturated mise-en-scene.
So too unimproved is its flippant alteration of protocol to suit the needs of the plot, as "On Stranger Tides" asserts on more than one occasion that size really doesn't matter. An effigy of Jack Sparrow demonstrably causes direct pain to the Rum-swilling gent when held under a naked flame, but doesn't kill him when it sinks to the bottom of a rocky river never to be seen again; Ships are resurrected from the depths of the sea and confined to miniature glass bottles for later use. Even as a fantasy/adventure story (this is no Master and Commander) there's an alarming amount of screenwriting licence used to drive the narrative towards its close. Partly through giving them individually more to do,"On Stranger Tides" is aided by the gracious dynamism of its actors in gunning towards the conclusion, neither hampered by lack of screentime or bad jokes (at least mostly). Rush's Barbossa has rarely been more fun than in this episode's winning chemistry with Depp (in a reprise of a reprise of a reprise), both in their infiltration of a Spanish military camp, and in a silly-but-relatively-tame scene in which he and Sparrow attempt to balance a precariously stranded ship.
As can often be said about projects that round up more money than one can shake a stick at, the "Pirates" crew have had their day - even with a fourth film that bests the two that preceded it. It's more structured and inclined towards making its story coherent; less frantic, or eager to charm, but it still isn't particularly successful at doing any of these things, and doesn't show enough imagination or overhaul in tackling a Georgian world that feels as ticklishly familiar and predictable as it ever has. If Depp's Sparrow once wanted to know where the rum had gone, he now needs to ask where the magic has gone; "On Stranger Tides" mixes it up, but it's still a lukewarm chowder of flimsy quests, saccharin love stories, and a man with a fondness for eyeliner.