Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, Sam Claflin
Far more predictable than anything in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was the critical pile-on that greeted its release. Considering that the reviews have gotten progressively worse since the first film in the series, did anyone really think that the fourth entry was going to be met with rapturous applause? And yet, I find it impossible to join in the apparent fun of the bash-fest. Oh, it’s not that I think this latest film in the Pirates franchise is a great work, or that it improves all that much on the last one—but then I didn’t dislike the last one.
However, On Stranger Tides does pretty much what it sets out to do—play up and on those things that have worked in the previous films. It’s a lot like one of the later Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” Pictures—say Road to Bali (1952). It’s not up to the best, but it has enough of what you want—assuming, of course, that you like the other movies and the character of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)—to make for an agreeable entertainment. Since no film is ever going to duplicate the delightful surprise of the first film—really, who expected a movie based on a theme park ride not to suck?—I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect much more.
Getting rid of the Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley characters was definitely a good idea, as was bringing in Penelope Cruz’s Angelica—who may or may not be the daughter of Blackbeard the Pirate (Ian McShane)—as semi-love interest and adversary for Jack Sparrow. Cruz and Depp are much more evenly matched, and don’t really need the support of a pair of “juvenile leads.” Proof of this comes in the form of the wanna-be missionary Philip (Brit TV actor Sam Claflin) and his romance with mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey)—largely extraneous additions that the film blessedly uses very little. Much better is McShane’s Blackbeard, who manages to be genuinely menacing.
The story is no great shakes. It’s all about a search for the Fountain of Youth, with the Spanish after it, King George II (a nice role for Richard Griffiths) after it through the dubious proxy of Capt. Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), and Blackbeard and Angelica after it with the not-exactly-willing participation of Jack. This does, however, provide ample opportunity for some witty repartee and nicely executed physical comedy. Granted, Keith Richards (in an even briefer appearance) as Jack’s father has the single best line in the film and it comes early on, which poses the problem that nothing ever quite tops it. (Cruz comes close on occasion, especially in her response to Jack accusing her of running “like a girl.”) But in general, it works.
Bringing in Rob Marshall to replace Gore Verbinski may have sounded like a good idea, but it really wasn’t so hot. The film is at its best when Marshall sticks close to the Verbinski approach (which is blessedly most of the time), and its one significant missed opportunity is something Verbinski could have pulled off. There’s a set-up for a terrific gag based on one in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush involving Ponce de Leon precariously balanced on a cliff. Verbinski could have done wonders with this, while Marshall all but ignores it. At least, he manages not to ruin the proceedings in general and keeps the film moving.
The real question, of course, is do you want more of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow? If you do, I can’t imagine why this won’t please you (though at one point he seems to briefly channel Heath Ledger in Lasse Halstrom’s 2006 Casanova), especially in his scenes with Cruz. If you don’t, why on Earth are you even considering this? Bottom line for me: I enjoyed it and am glad I saw it. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo.