Film Review: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’

Tides opens with Jack Sparrow in London, putting together a crew for his next expedition: to find the Fountain of Youth. As always, the work is cut out for him, as several others are likewise on the trail, foremost and mysterious among them is a figure known as The Spaniard, who’s been commissioned to not only seek out the fountain, but destroy it as well.

In addition to that, his old foe Captain Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush), now down a leg and bereft of his beloved Black Pearl, has returned and is now working as a privateer for King George II (Richard Griffiths), another fountain-seeker. And rounding out the stranger tide is Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former lover of Jack and daughter to the dreaded Captain Blackbeard (series newcomer Ian McShane), who seeks eternal life to bypass a prophecy that a one-legged man shall kill him.

However merely finding the fountain and juggling adversaries and fellow adventurers isn’t enough, to unlock the power of eternal youth, Jack must first acquire the tear of a mermaid, which entails capturing a mermaid (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and getting her to cry. That doesn’t seem like a particularly ardent task, especially when you have several men with knives and a Blackbeard, but, wouldn’t you know it, the missionary Philip (Sam Claflin) has fallen in love with her. But that’s easily remedied, right?

I’m not much of a Pirates fan and don’t find Depp’s Jack Sparrow as endearing as everyone else seems to (he’s like Chevy Chase in that both simply make deadpan observations of the flagrantly obvious), but I didn’t mind On Stranger Tides. It’s a hefty 137 minutes and yet is the shortest of the quartet. It drags, but no more so than the previous installments and has one truly inspired sequence with the mermaids.

Gone, too, are Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom’s characters and their tiresome romance. Granted it’s replaced here by the dual woo-flinging of Depp and Cruz and Claflin and Frisbey, but at least it’s kept to a salvageable minimum, one of the reasons being Sparrow’s relocation from supporting role to center stage, and thus, with the weight of the action placed upon him, doesn’t have much time for love.

Jack of course works best as a background character, but with so many other rascals to share the film, his part isn’t much larger than it was in the previous installments.

And to that end, Tides is also much, much easier to follow than At World’s End and won’t leave the viewer stranded in a Sparrow-like daze for several hours upon exiting the theatre.

As for the adventure, well, the action sequences of the Pirates movies have always seemed uninspired to me (with the exception of the waterwheel scene from Dead Man’s Chest). The swordplay is so repetitive that each one must occur in some ill-suited locale in no way conducive to a crossing of rapiers.

Yet somehow each place usually ends of getting burned to the ground while we hear a tumult of blades endlessly clash in the background and the scribbles of the screenwriter’s pen as he tries to make it interesting. For that matter, how many more chandeliers must someone swing from before it becomes interesting? (Say what you will about George Lucas’s failings as a director, the man can lay down a good sword battle.)

Ultimately, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides holds up better than its predecessors yet maintains all the opulence and grandeur with slightly less bloat. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) makes some improvements on the formula and has righted some of the franchise’s mistakes, but it’s still nothing special.

If you enjoyed most of the preceding three, you’ll likely enjoy this one. If not, and if you find yourself within its doldrums, best to raise sails and seek comfort in a hardy belt of rum and the wittier offspring of Tim Powers’ novel, the delightful Monkey Island.

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