Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Fourth film in the series has Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) joining up with an old flame (Penelope Cruz) on board a ship captained by infamous pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), as they set sail in search of the famed fountain of youth. Along the way they are also joined by a young missionary (Sam Claflin) and, of all things, a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). Meanwhile, old foe Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is hot on their trail, as untrustworthy as ever, but this time in the service of the King, who needs the fountain’s magically healing water. Kevin R. McNally is back as Sparrow’s right-hand man, Keith Richards turns up again as Sparrow’s salty dad, and Richard Griffiths plays the foppish old King.

I’ve always been a defender of Disney, because whilst they’re very corporate and their films tend to seem like products at times, the fact is, they tend to produce quality product. That was certainly the case of the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, which brought a freshness and irreverence to a worn-out genre. The second film was a different story. It was a bloated piece of crap that was clearly a self-indulgent cash-grab. The third film? Much better than the second, and it took the series into some weird and interesting areas in order to remove some of the stale stench. Then there’s this fourth film from 2011, and it too left me with a different reaction. Directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago” of all films) what we have here is...three films too many. Four films based on an amusement park ride is shameless, if not shameful, if you ask me.

It starts off well, however. Most of these big blockbusters will start off with a crash-bang action spectacle, but this one mixes in a lot of humour, and Richard Griffiths was born to wear a powdered wig. His performance, however brief, is somewhere in between Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley. The thunderous score by Hans Zimmer (“Gladiator”, “The Dark Knight”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”), meanwhile, strikes the right note immediately. I was also pleased to see that the series had added a new wrinkle to Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, who could’ve gotten stale by now. Decked out in his own powdered wig, he’s essentially become a ‘company man’, which is actually pretty funny. The inexplicable, millisecond cameo by Dame Judi Dench, however, was pointless.

It’s not long before boredom set in with me. After the opener, this settles back into the same old thing, four times over, and I’m beyond over it. This is lazy, if expensive filmmaking, and no film beyond the first one is terribly necessary. This, whist not the least in the series, ultimately proves the least necessary. The idea of an imposter Jack Sparrow is great...until you realise the imposter is played by Penelope Cruz, rendering everyone else in the film completely fucking stupid. She’s Spanish and a girl, how frigging blind are these pirates? Once the ruse is dispensed with, Cruz settles down into a perfectly fine performance (the best in the film), but I must say she’s not much compensation for the absence of Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom. In a way, I’m glad they’re not here (even gladder that Jack Davenport’s insufferably dull character is AWOL too), due to the already bursting-at-the-seams character list. However,  there’s little doubt that this film’s characters aren’t anything special. Ian McShane’s Blackbeard isn’t the Barbossa re-tread I had feared, but aside from a memorably menacing opening scene, he’s not used in the film nearly enough nor creatively enough. There’s a few moments of straight-up, cold-eyed menace (and dry, sinister humour), but for the most part, I’m not even sure the film is even all that much interested in him. His ship, however, is wonderfully evil-looking, a true ‘Devil Ship’ indeed. Rush is good, as always, but he’s one of Australia’s best actors, one of the world’s best character actors, and too good to be in “Pirates of the Caribbean 4”. Depp doesn’t appear so much to be having fun as trying to convince us he’s having fun.

The best scene in the whole film involves an encounter with some bewitching (but dangerous) mermaids, but for the most part, this is just the same old thing done again, as sluggishly and superfluously as ever. It’s not as cluttered as “Dead Man’s Chest”, but this is pretty poor. The material was already stretched too thin after the first film, and with this one, I sorta just let it all wash over me. One of the biggest problems with the whole series, but especially this one, is that allegiances change so often that it’s hard to keep track and even harder to care. There are moments (and clever lines like this one from Depp to Cruz: ‘You lied to me by telling the truth?’), but for the most part, I was never really engaged.

I’m over it. I’m done. Sadly, Disney felt differently and the series continues. And why should they stop? There’s money to be made, and products to shill, so I’m sure writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (scribes of the previous “Pirates of the Caribbean” films) will churn out something. But I’m done. I’m out. Sorry Mickey, sorry Minnie, and sorry Cap’n Jack, but I’ve had enough of this series.

Rating: C


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