“ON STRANGER TIDES” SMARTLY GOES BACK TO BASICS BUT FAILS TO REBOTTLE THE FUN AND EXCITEMENT OF “BLACK PEARL”
For me, the Pirates of the Caribbean series has always been a source of childlike reckless abandonment. With “Curse of the Black Pearl,” director Gore Verbinski crafted a genuine pirate masterpiece that hearkens back to original swashbuckling action flicks like Errol Flynn’s “Captain Blood.” I loved the character of Captain Jack Sparrow, the brilliantly chaotic sense of unpredictability, and the high-octane world in which we see him reign supreme.
Unfortunately for this fourth installment and fans worldwide, replacement director Rob Marshal just doesn’t have the sense of scope or excitement for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” that Gore Verbinski had in abundance for the trilogy. Verbinski may have overextended his reach, but Marshall takes the opposite approach in not pushing the story far enough to reach the appealingly uncharted feel that made us like the series even amid the sequels’ ridiculous nature.
The story has to be the most simple installment the series. Occurring some time after the events of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” a shipless and crewless Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp; “Sweeney Todd”) is in London. He has two reasons: to save previous crewmember Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from a hanging and to find out who is using the Jack Sparrow persona to gather a crew for a trip to the Fountain of Youth. While achieving these two ends, Jack’s latest adventure starts when he bumps into Angelica (Penelope Cruz; “Blow”), a woman who years ago was about to take her vows and join a Spanish convent before Jack used his wiles on her and has since become the only woman whom Jack has ever felt “stirrings” for. She proves to have ulterior plans for Jack when she shanghais him and places him on ‘The Queen Anne’s Revenge’ under the intimidating command of Blackbeard (Ian McShane; “Kung Fu Panda 2”), the pirate who all pirates fear with his calm-before-the-storm ferocity and ability to zombify his sailors. Blackbeard is determined to find the fountain with Jack’s help, but Jack has some competition considering that an English armada led by the peg-legged Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush; “The King’s Speech”) – who is now a proud privateer for Her Majesty’s service – and a Spanish armada are hot on the trail of the Fountain, as well. All three forces converge in a massive race, where they come across deadly mermaids (one of whom takes the role of the new Elizabeth Swan with a minister of God who is one of Blackbeard’s captives), caverns, and jungles.
After viewing “On Stranger Tides,” I have decided that I will never get sick of Johnny Depp playing the indelible Captain Jack Sparrow. What I am capable of getting sick of is an utter lack of genuine imagination and sense of fun. This has far too much of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get feel – some fun may be there, but Verbinski’s previous thought and care is noticeably absent.
The film does make a real effort in smartly trying to get back to basics by focusing on one story instead of having a bunch of subplot tangents. This makes a simpler sense of fun than the other sequels. But, mainly, we just don’t have any of the first film’s entertaining balance of wit, action, and charm.
My biggest complaint is how, considering the amount of adventure and the unpredictability in the previous installments, “On Stranger Tides” only feels like half a Pirates film. There just isn’t much substance to be found here. It’s, dare I say it, far too simple.
Before seeing this, I was hoping that this fourth film’s approach would be, ultimately, taking the Indiana Jones approach of individualized tales where each stands alone from the rest. Each film feels great in its own right. This was supposed to be the equivalent to “The Last Crusade” to the first Pirate film’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” We just didn’t get that feeling.
Even though this was supposed to stand alone, we are seemingly getting another convoluted pushing for a sequel. The ending has far too man wink-wink moments where, when we should have closure, we instead get questions which only a sequel can answer. I loved the first film as much as I did because it didn’t have to rely on the prospect of a sequel or anything additional to keep grand and complete in its own right. The two sequels never felt as great as they could have been because they lost sight of their potential approach – which was episodic looks at the adventures of Jack Sparrow.
The truth is that Sparrow is – and always will be – the star attraction of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. The trick of the first film that separated it from all the sequels was how it knew how to use Sparrow in the best way possible. But to make him work, we need a great story as visceral and complex as he is. Do we get that? No.
The swordfights and battles, while carrying the same frenetic movement and obvious skill, are usually nowhere near as incredible as those from “Dead Man’s Chest” or as fun as “Curse of the Black Pearl.” They are far too limited in scope and just feel askew to how grand all the previous swordfights felt.
At this point, we already know what to expect with Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow – awesomeness. Even though we know what to expect, Jack continues to entertain us and make us laugh. His chaotic craziness and shrewd intelligence has always been a brilliant combination. Since the last Pirates, we’ve had Depp in a variety of different roles; from an eerie serial-killing barber in “Sweeney Todd” to a charismatic bank robber in “Public Enemies.” Yet it is through Jack Sparrow where he finds his greatest audience – and I do think it is here where I enjoy watching him the most.
Through her fiery spirit and seductive sensuality, Penelope Cruz proves a better match for Jack Sparrow as a character than anyone outside Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa from the original trilogy. We can easily see, amid all the women we know Jack has come across, why she has been the only woman who has stirred real feelings in the pirate who can never get tied down. She also fits right into this pirate world.
It is with Ian McShane where I feel the most disappointed – and it has nothing to do with his acting. McShane is a spectacular actor, filled with subtle poise and intimidation that I can’t help but be mesmerized. His greatest performance I’ve seen is hands-down his role in the miniseries “Pillars of the Earth,” where he played a corrupt bishop. I truly was expecting a villain that surpassed the other Pirates antagonists. But the character is so lifeless that McShane is cruelly used. He could have gone to such better use. Basically, he makes one or two violent actions and then just sits around looking menacing. When it comes to Pirate villains, apparently Captain Barbossa still sits at the top of greatness.
Jack’s shtick has always been his stark ability to be at least two steps ahead of everyone else, yet that unpredictable ability is sadly missing with “On Stranger Tides.” We never get the payoff noteworthy moment where we see the same old Jack Sparrow who brilliantly made the Interceptor/Dauntless switch and subtly snagged a gold piece from the Aztec chest to guarantee himself a winning fight. Here, Jack is literally along for the ride – and that’s not a seat where we like to see him.
After four years of waiting in anticipation, what we should have gotten for “On Stranger Tides” was a sequel like “The Last Crusade.” Instead, we get a sequel like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” with practically nothing grand, challenging, or original. It’s a safe sequel, choosing to fully rely on the already-established characters we love rather than taking us on a grand new journey full of rousing adventure.
Ultimately, I may have expected too much. I loved “Black Pearl.” I liked the other two, but felt that they railroaded on their potential. With “On Stranger Tides,” I just don’t consider it to carry the pace or the feel of what made the others so much fun.
All I really wanted was to be entertained, just like the previous films. Even during the dumbest of scenes in “At World’s End,” I never really stopped being entertained. I don’t need intellectual depth or philosophical complications. I just want fun. I’m not being picky here: the sad truth is that, after a bit, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” just isn’t fun anymore.
The film is most definitely not a failure, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a success, either. It is merely passable. But as for me, I just think the series deserves better than that.