The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
Gee that long-haired multi-jointed dead Asian woman with a rather significant chip on her shoulder and her freaky white-faced meowing son sure do get around. Although hapless American student Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tried to burn down the house to stop the ghost lady’s uncontrollable rage in the first Grudge it has apparently only gotten stronger in the second. Now just by mere association one can pick up the two very uninvited guests. Karen’s sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) for example comes to Tokyo to see why her sis is in the hospital--only to see Karen fall from the roof in one big splat—and immediately gets caught up in the whole deal. Then there are some mean prep-school girls who take another girl to the house to play a prank and then they all get cursed. But one girl brings the curse back with her to the U.S. where it then infiltrates an entire apartment building. I mean for all I know I could be cursed for just watching this nonsense. Wait what’s that under my desk? No one really gets a chance to do much in Grudge 2. In fact the auditions probably went something like this: “Can you look wide-eyed haggard scared out of your mind with possibly a few tears streaming down? Perfect!” Gellar’s time is short onscreen leaving most of the heavy lifting to Tamblyn (TV’s Joan of Arcadia) who handles it as best she can. The actress isn’t a stranger to Japanese horror remakes either: If you remember she was the first victim to meet Samara the well girl in The Ring. Then there’s the crop of young stars in Grudge 2 including Arielle Kebbel (John Tucker Must Die) as the poor American teenager who inadvertently brings evil mom and son back with her to the U.S. Even Jennifer Beals (Showtime's The L Word) makes an appearance as one of the people living in the building affected by the curse. But she walks around looking like she has no idea why she made this movie. To be fair Grudge 2 isn’t a complete waste of time. Helmed once again by director Takashi Shimizu and based on the popular Japanese Ju-On series Grudge 2 does have plenty of creepy moments. Let’s just say you might think twice about looking in a closet drinking milk from the container or picking hair out of the drain. Yuck. But Grudge 2 unfortunately suffers the same fate as The Ring Two: The element of surprise is gone and the filmmakers haven’t invented anything more compelling to replace it. What’s left then is just the curse itself--and all the guttural sounds black-rimmed eyes and popping up out of nowhere gets old pretty darn quick especially when there is hardly anyone left to root for. Still it looks like they might be setting up for a Grudge 3--that is if the box office numbers hold this time around.