May 20th, 2011 in Reviews by 0 Comments

Johnny Depp used to have a rep as a true artiste taking quirky roles in the of movies kind that are more likely to garner critical accolades than big box office. So it was with a fair amount of irony that the actor collected his first Oscar nomination in a Jerry Bruckheimer summer tentpole. The movie was, of course, 2004’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl where Depp created the indelible and unique Captain Jack Sparrow.

Now some seven years later Depp launches his fourth go round with the drunken Captain in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Sadly and we find ourselves saying “enough already.”

The story starts in a familiar place. Sparrow is lacking a ship and a crew and lands in London to spring his former shipmate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from prison. Antics ensue and some hasty chase scenes (and a throwaway appearance by Keith Richards) later the movie has quickly reintroduces another familiar face Geoffrey Rush’s Barbosa (now in the service of the Queen’s Navy).

We also meet Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a woman with a bitter history with Captain Jack. Heavenly naming aside, it turns out she’s just as shiftless as he is and soon has him Shanghaied into service on The Queen Anne’s revenge, a dark vessel captained by the infamous Blackbeard himself (Ian McShane).

And so the stage is set with a familiar scenario: Blackbeard, Barbosa and some nameless Spaniards all racing separately across oceans to claim a lost treasure: The Fountain of Youth. Of course Jack prances about throughout, somehow being seen as the key to it all.

On Stranger Tides makes clear something that we didn’t quite realize before now: in spite of the fact that Sparrow has overshadowed the Pirates franchise as a whole, he’s really more of a supporting character, too unmotivated and unchanging to serve as a true protagonist. Indeed, he’s much better as a reluctant partner to Will and Elizabeth — a partner who only occasionally does the right thing – than he is as the true lead that he’s forced to play here. But Will and Elizabeth aren’t along for this ride.

As a partial remedy, director Rob Marshall offers up Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the young romantics for the film. They are, however, poor, lifeless substitutes for Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley. Indeed, it’s never adequately explained why Blackbeard is carrying Claflin’s preacher along on the journey to begin with, much less keeping him alive.

Blackbeard is another problem. Sure, he’s got a cool sword that can make his ship’s deck come to life. He also knows how to make crew members into Zombies (the Haitian/voodoo kind, not the Romero flavor). But he never really exhibits enough bad behavior to make us hate or fear him. Far too often he stands around dumbfounded while other characters defy him. We don’t ever believe he might prevail.

While most sequels err on the side of “bigger equals better”, this one feels sadly smaller and less visionary than the previous franchise installments (overreaching as they became towards the end). Even the sexy/deadly new mermaids can’t conjure up a moment that wowed us.

Instead, what we’re left with is a movie with neither a strong hero nor a strong villain and therefore no strong conflict. Neither is there an emotional arc to draw us in to the overly familiar plot.

If the word “familiar” keeps coming up it’s because On Stranger Tides feels like one of the terrible sequels of the bad old days, where they try to recreate past magic by simply rehashing old ideas. Too often this movie is content to take us on a journey through the straits of “Been There” towards the isle of “Done That” and ultimately crashes upon the rocky, unforgiving shore of “Why Bother.”

At least that’s how I saw it.

Author: Rob Worley

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