A film review by Craig J. Koban May 25, 2011

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: 

ON STRANGER TIDES jj
½

2011, PG-13, 136 mins.

 

Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp / Angelica: Penelope Cruz / Barbossa: Geoffrey Rush / Blackbeard: Ian McShane / Gibbs: Kevin R. McNally / Philip: Sam Claflin / Syrena: Astrid Berges-Frisbey / Capt. Teague: Keith Richards

Directed by Rob Marshall / Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, suggested by the novel by Tim Powers

SCREENED IN
3D

The fourth PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, ON STRANGER TIDES, opens with a virtuoso scene that emphasizes why Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the most memorable and unique swashbuckler/miscreant characters in movie history.  It also serves to remind filmgoers that without Johnny Depp’s participation in these films the PIRATES series would all but wash up on shore. 

I will not spoil too much, other than to say that lovable rascal and androgynously mischievous Captain Jack manages to – within the first 15 minutes or so – bribe British law makers, impersonate a high British judge, preside over and cast a verdict in the court case involving his former shipmate Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally), escapes the courtroom and is chased into the London streets by the authorities, and, when captured, is brought hand and leg cuffed to King George II (Richard Griffiths) who wants him to help lead an expedition to find the famed Fountain of Youth before the Spanish do. 

All of this setup is fantastic, but the memorable moment for me occurs just after Jack is captured by the King’s redcoats and is placed in an obscenely huge dining hall.  Not knowing whether he’ll live or die or be thrown in prison, he remains chained to a chair awaiting an audience with the King.  Yet, all the devilishly cheeky rogue cares about…is a sweet and tasty pastry that lies on the table before him.  Watching the captured pirate attempt to move himself, while stuck in a gold-encrusted chair, towards his prize is a moment that would have made Buster Keaton or Chaplin proud. 

It’s craftily playful moments like that one that has made the last three films in the PIRATES trilogy such a giddily enjoyable rides.  All the films - CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, DEAD MAN’S CHEST, AT WORLD’S END, and, to a lesser degree, ON STRANGER TIDES – owe their charm and vitality to the adventure serials and Errol Flynn swashbucklers of yesteryear, not to mention that Depp firmly entrenched his Oscar nominated performance as Sparrow as one for the ages.  Flamboyant, eccentric, goofy, jolly, laughably inept, latently feminine, and drunkenly swaggered, Sparrow is a treasure to behold.   

A fourth film in the highly lucrative franchise – “suggested" by the 1987 historical sea faring novel written by Tim Powers - seemed unavoidable, especially considering the massive box office might of the series as a whole.  Some elements have carried over (series writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot return, as does Depp and several other key stars) whereas others have changed (director Gore Verbinski is out, enter CHICAGO and NINE director Rob Marshall; also, no Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom).  ON STRANGER TIDES is also the first entry to have actual historical personas, albeit in fictionalized form (like King George, Blackbeard, and Ferdinand VI of Spain).  Some have labeled ON STRANGER TIDES as a reboot or a rebirth of the franchise.  For as much as I love Depp’s merrily impish commitment to his role and the fact that he, for the most part, keeps this fourth film afloat, the end result of ON STRANGER TIDES is a film that feels more like a disposable and superfluous detour for the franchise than anything else.  As much as it pains me to say this, Depp’s participation as well seems less the product of pure artistic impulses and more akin to being financially milked (he got a near $60 million payday to appear again). 

After the aforementioned meeting and escape from King George’s clutches, ON STRANGER TIDES settles into its main story threads:  Jack manages to hook up with an old girlfriend that has been impersonating him, Angelica (the glowing and spirited Penelope Cruz, Depp’s former BLOW co-star and, to be fair, a beauty that would never, ever be mistaken for a man) and her father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane, glowering and menacing to the hilt) as they team up in search of the Fountain.  Other parties, however, yearn for the same prize: The English legion are, amazing as it sounds, being captained by former pirate Barbossa (the cunningly devilish Geoffrey Rush) and the Spanish Army.  All of them need a map to guide them, two chalices and a hard-to-collect mermaid tear (just a single one will do) to locate and use the Fountain, which is more difficult than it sounds, seeing as mermaids outwardly look like super models, but can turn into ravenously deadly monsters at any time.  Predictably, all the participants come together to duke it out for eternal life supremacy during the climax. 

In terms of its successes, ON STRANGER TIDES is a much leaner entry than its predecessors, even at a long 136 minutes, making it the shortest of the lot (AT WORLD’S END, my favourite of the series, was still too long at nearly three hours).  In addition, Depp and Cruz are wonderful together and have a flirtatious chemistry ripe with subverted sexual urgency (although, granted Jack’s outward femininity displayed in the series, I was starting to doubt his attraction to the opposite sex).  Cruz, several months pregnant while filming, really invests in her role with a zeal and seductive energy (“Why is it that every time we meet you’re always pointing something at me?” she asks Jack at one point).  And as for the much publicized 3D in the film, I will say this: ON STRANGER TIDES was mostly shot in 3D with key moments unconverted, and the results are a far cry batter than most hasty upconverts I’ve seen.  Granted, considering the densely dreary and dark palette of the film, 3D may have been a miscalculation, drowning the dank images of overall clarity.

More than any other PRATES film, though, ON STRANGER TIDES contains a disjointed and weakly cobbled together plot, which largely suffers from stiff narrative momentum.  For such a long film, not much really happens in this entry, just a series of chases and confrontations.  Some subplots as well seem unfulfilling, if not a bit unnecessary to the overall storyline, like one involving a captured mermaid (played by the lusciously gorgeous Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who, like all movie mermaids, has her breasts annoyingly covered by convenient placement of hair or shadows) and a captive missionary (Sam Claflin) that feels like a desperate plea to rekindle the lost romantic energy that Knightley and Bloom brought to the last three films.  At least Berges-Frisbey is a luminous sight to behold. 

Considering the stature and evocativeness of Davy Jones and Barbossa from the previous entries, McShane’s Blackbeard here is a letdown as a lingering antagonist.  The actor is tangibly intimidating and makes Blackbeard a perpetual figure of menace, but there’s little in the way of embellishing him as a full fledged character.  Aside from the change in villain, the change in the director’s chair is also not successful either: Rob Marhsall can’t seem to harness or orchestrate the film’s action pieces with any considerable flair or elegance in the effortless manner that Verbinski did before him.     

ON STRANGER TIDES is on solid ground from a basic production standpoint, but the film suffers from a lack of visual ambition, innovation and exuberance that made the last PIRATES film escapist spectacles on par with STAR WARS or the LORD OF THE RINGS.   ON STRANGER TIDES was not cheap ($150 million), but it’s roughly half the cost of its prequel entry and it oftentimes shows: too much of the time it feels like a direct-to-video effort, granted a very expensive one.  I recall marveling at the tour-de-force technological creations of Davy Jones and Barbossa’s skeletal crew beforehand, but here it’s clear that the makers have disappointingly cut corners.  In terms of cutting edge imagery, ON STRANGER TIDES seems genuinely lacking. 

Again, Depp is the only one that commands and deserves our collective interest in these films, and he certainly delivers in ON STRANGER TIDES, ever though it’s clear at times that Sparrow is just not the capriciously off-centered and spontaneously unhinged delight that he was before.  The Captain, after four very long films, is just not as fresh or invigoratingly original, but Depp still deserves kudos for creating and wholeheartedly investing and immersing himself in what has now become a defining and iconic role.  ON STRANGER TIDES may feel like a redundant entry in the series, but good ol’ Jack can still deliver the zingers.  At one point he’s hanging upside down while being in a very incriminating position of leading a rebellion on Blackbeard’s vessel.  He sheepishly deadpans to him,  “I wish to report a mutiny!  I can name fingers and point names.”  

Classic Sparrow.

 

CrAiGeR's other

Reviews:

 

DEAD MAN'S CHEST  (2011)  jjj

at world's end  (2007)  jjj1/2

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the PIRATES series:

1.  AT WORLD'S END  (2007)  jjj1/2

2.  CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL  (2003)  jjj

3.  DEAD MAN'S CHEST (2006)  jjj

4.  ON STRANGER TIDES  (2011)  jj1/2

 

 

 

 

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