Saturday, May 21, 2011
Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"
It was hard not to feel nervous about the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. With the completion of the original trilogy, a fourth installment seemed like too obvious of a cash-grab. And perhaps that's all On Stranger Tides deserves to be remembered for. Even so, I have to question the intensity of some of the criticisms leveled at the series' latest, now directed by Rob Marshall (taking over for Gore Verbinski). Is On Stranger Tides a good movie? Probably not. Is it a cash-grab? Absolutely. Does it deserve to be labeled a fountain of maggots? Perhaps that's going too far.
Taking place an indeterminate amount of years after At World's End, this latest (now standalone) adventure traces Jack Sparrow's (Johnny Depp) quest for the fabled Fountain of Youth. While roped into the quest somewhat against his will, Jack must contend with the ferocious Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), the Spanish navy, and Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who has since joined England's navy. There's also something in there regarding mermaids and their tears. Plot-wise, it's all over the place, hopping between mild character interaction, exposition, and action set-pieces, some of which are entertaining, others of which are just there. The Spaniards, in particular, are used to ill-effect. The film's climax, a jumble of swords and guns, halts when they arrive, do what they please, and then simply depart for the film to resume.
As Capt. Jack and everyone else make their way for the Fountain, there are a handful of minor laughs, and the occasionally amusing bit of stunt work. Special effects and stunts are, at the very least, the one area where On Stranger Tides is closest in spirit to The Curse of the Black Pearl, with a greater emphasis on more grounded locales, rather than massive amounts of computer generation (for both sets and foes). Gone are the fishy crew of Davy Jones, in are flesh-and-blood sailors and pirates. Mermaids are here too, probably the film's flashiest special effect, but they're handled with surprisingly little fuss. Amidst all of this, I couldn't help but miss original director Gore Verbinski. Whatever the flaws of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, Verbinski does have a knack for creating memorable scenes, often with a fantastic sense of pop surrealism. Marshall's work here lacks any of that. He merely puts the script on screen, with nothing new. It's merely Verbinski, minus the style and giddy enthusiasm.
Yet for all of these changes that harken back to the original, too often the magic, much like the rum, is gone. The odd moment or two works, such as a sequence where Jack tries to seduce Angelica with a candle-lit dinner. But by now the Jack Sparrow character, the biggest reason to see any of these movies, has been taken as far as it can go. Depp still has fun with the role, but I couldn't help but get the feeling that even he is running out of quirks to give his iconic character. Rush, Cruz, and McShane are all perfectly fine in their roles as well, but again, there's just no need for any of this. On Stranger Tides, silly as it is, does allow you to get caught up in its world, but that's mostly based on any goodwill built up from the first three films. It isn't a franchise-killing train wreck, but it has nothing that makes it a must see, either for the casual movie-goer or a die-hard Pirates fan.
This is particularly troubling because, even as a cash-grab, On Stranger Tides didn't have to be so tepid. If the Fast and Furious franchise can suddenly earn positive reviews on its fifth go-round, why shouldn't a franchise with more memorable characters be able to do so on its fourth? On Stranger Tides should have been a true re-invigoration for the series, whether or not it spawns any sequels. Instead, it's merely a mildly amusing diversion that shows how far the series has fallen from the wholly delightful original.