It’s safe to assume that if you’re balls Depp in anticipation to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, that you’re a fan of the previous three movies. You know exactly what to expect, and to that end you won’t be disappointed in the fourth relatively satisfying yet unspectacular entry into the Pirates film series. Despite the infusion of new blood into the franchise, almost everything about On Stranger Tides feels like seen, done, and argghed that before. This is not necessarily a negative criticism and by the time this is posted, Pirates 4 will have kicked out last week’s idiotic Priest to straight-to-DVD oblivion strictly based on the lines for midnight screenings and that no other movie is opening against it, unless you’ve been hankering to see A Beautiful Life at your local pretentious art-house theater.
Does it mean the latest installment of the Disney Cash Cow is a good movie? Good enough. I mean, it’s a Pirates movie and your expectations cannot POSSIBLY be that high, considering you sat through the convoluted mess of previous sequels and yet probably couldn’t pass a test on what exactly happened during the overly dense plot(s) of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End.
With previous Pirates director Gore Verbinski departed, new director Rob Marshall steps in with dancing shoes about to get wet. Marshall’s directing canon consists of a decent musical that inexplicably (w…t…f?) won Best Picture (Chicago); a dull musical that made viewers want to stick sharp things into their ears every time they heard Marion Cotillard “sing” (Nine); and that movie where Japanese women were played by Chinese actresses (Memoirs of a Geisha). I’m not sure what about Marshall’s filmography the producers thought might make him a good director for a Pirates movie but considering the material he’s given, he does a pretty passable job.
It does help that Johnny Depp is back in his signature role along with a then-pregnant Penelope Cruz in a reunion of 2001’s Blow. Granted, you might not remember much about that drug biopic… because it wasn’t very good and it really isn’t necessary to revisit it. Ever. Again.
You know what else helps? That Pirates 4 isn’t 3-plus fucking hours long like the previous two sequels and that you don’t need a schematic to follow the plot as not every minor character or object has a 20-minute backstory that gets delved into. In On Stranger Tides, only a couple of characters are given four pages of exposition, but rest assured, you will be home before the Rapture if you’re the kind of sad soul that believes in that sort of thing.
Let’s see if I actually followed the story closely enough. And if I haven’t… oh well, just know that every overstuffed block of explanation will be followed by a) Pirates fighting with swords or b) Depp saying something funny as only Captain Jack can and most of your coworkers try to but just end up sounding dim like when they made you suffer through those inane Austin Powers impressions.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp, looking alive in a way he never did sleepwalking through The Tourist) wants to go to the Fountain of Youth. Only problem is he doesn’t have a ship or a crew. After rescuing Master Gibbs (Kevin McNally) to help procure one, Gibbs informs him that a Jack Sparrow has already been recruiting sailors for an upcoming voyage.
Real Jack Sparrow knows this isn’t true.
Before he can address this matter he’s betrayed and delivered to some important English guy named King George II (Richard Griffiths) who knows Sparrow has a map to the Fountain because he saw the last 5 minutes of Pirates 3. The English want to find the Fountain before the dastardly Spaniards get their grubby non-white paws on it, even though Spain already has a substantial head start. In fact, they’ve recruited a former pirate as one of their new privateers: the newly peg-legged Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, thankfully not giving elocution lessons).
Sparrow makes fun of Barbossa’s wig, eats a very elusive cream puff, and escapes English grasp, now more determined than ever to locate the Fountain. But where to begin, as now the English Navy is after him?
Earlier it was established that there was impostor Jack Sparrow looking for a crew. Maybe real Sparrow can find out who this impostor is and subsequently use that ship to get where he needs to go, which may be one and the same destination and everyone in the audience can already guess that the Jack Impostor is Penelope Cruz because it’s been 25 minutes and she hasn’t made an appearance.
After having a nice father-son chat with Captain Teague (Keith Richards, in a too- brief appearance), real Jack finds the location of fake Jack, and after a tussle, real Jack realizes that fake Jack is in fact, a long lost flame named Angelica (Penelope Cruz, maybe the only actor in the Pirates movies that wears more eye makeup than Depp).
BACKSTORY ALERT– Jack and Angelica used to be lovers, but Jack dumped her despite having real feelings, in no small part because she has about 200 more curves than Keira Knightley.
Surprisingly enough, Angelica is looking for a crew to travel to the Fountain as well. And that she’s the daughter of the super evil pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Sparrow thinks it would be wise to tag along since they seem to have a common goal, though he’s not above thinking mutinous thoughts.
There you go, the basic hook, as screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot have taken the mistakes from the previous sequels and streamlined On Stranger Tides story considerably, though Pirates 4 isn’t without its headscratchers, as the rest of the plot involves:
-a prophecy involving a six-fingered, I meant, one-legged man
-a Bible Thumper (Sam Clafin) as a rather obvious Orlando Bloom substitute
-Judi Dench (??)
-a cupboard with ships in it… including Sparrow’s beloved Black Pearl (don’t ask)
-two instances where 3D is actually worth the money you will waste
And… I don’t remember because after a while I wasn’t paying attention to story and was just enjoying Depp do his thing. I mean, it’s not like you and I are going to be tested on this later. Because Disney’s already taken your money, and could give a fuck if you understand what’s going on or whether characters’ motivations actually make sense.
Just know that as you’re watching Pirates 4, Disney is implanting subliminal messages into your children’s fragile, malleable psyches making them want to buy overpriced DVDs with an hour of ads and other random crap made by slaves of various colors in 4th world countries (think the “˜It’s a Small World After All’ ride… but with a lot more whipping and dehydration) designed to degrade and eventually break once your kids get them out of the box.
You didn’t think Disney put Pirates 4 in 3D because it actually improves the film, did you?
What works with On Stranger Tides:
1) No matter how much the movie flags, Depp never does, as you can tell he’s having a great time collecting that huge Disney paycheck playing Captain Jack again. It’s what acting teachers call “the joy of performance” and I can’t think of a moment during Tides or any of the Pirates movies when Depp doesn’t have it. Should there be another Pirates movie? Probably not, but I’d wouldn’t hesitate for a second seeing another one just to see Depp.
2) The mermaid attack only hinted at during the trailers is the only sequence in the film that actually feels fresh, as all the other attempts at action are trumped by the previous movies. Plus, it’s the only sequence worth your added 3D dollars.
3) The best scene in the movie involves Sparrow, Barbossa, a corpse, and some very precarious footing. The only scene in the movie that is actually fun without feeling forced.
4) Clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, Pirates 4 is the shortest since the original. Your ass is grateful. Literally.
What doesn’t work:
1) Like anything with too many calories and not enough nutritional value, Pirates 4 leaves you wanting more, rendering a good chunk of the movie instantly forgettable, even for something designed to be emptily entertaining. Maybe it’s because after three previous movies, the want to experience something different really isn’t too much to ask.
2) Ian McShane blusters and bullies as Blackbeard, but when all is said and done, he really doesn’t make much of an impression as “the pirate other pirates fear.” Makes you long for Bill Nighy and his tentacled face.
Overall. See it, you know you want to, but don’t expect too much as On Stranger Tide ranks third out of the four Pirates movies, in front of Dead Man’s Chest but well behind Curse of the Black Pearl and At World’s End. Because you can only see Thor so many times.