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.
Alejandro (Banderas) the former thief turned defender of the downtrodden seems poised to give up his swashbuckling ways as California shifts from Mexican territory to U.S. statehood. But he stubbornly refuses to be domesticated. A rift grows between Mr. and Mrs. Zorro when his wife Elena (Zeta-Jones) insists he’s not there for his spirited young son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). But even as Elena appears to divorce Alejandro and dally with a mysterious dashing old schoolmate (Rufus Sewell) Zorro remains a much-needed force of good when he discovers a plot that threatens to tear the U.S. apart. Still ranking high among the most beautiful people currently on the big screen Banderas and Zeta-Jones successfully evolve their on-screen relationship to reflect the too-long passage of time between films. If only the arch energy they bring to their banter and the passion they heat their love scenes with weren’t hindered by the clichéd by-the-numbers script. Meanwhile though a semi-believable potential romantic rival to Banderas the ever-arresting Sewell remains one of the most underutilized actors in Hollywood relegated to yet-another period heavy role. Alonso shows pluck as the budding Zorro Jr. but his charisma is dampened by overly cutes-y scenes and too-modern one-liners. Even though both Banderas and Zeta-Jones have emerged as top-flight actors and A-level movie stars since the original the sequel still sorely misses the class and gravitas Anthony Hopkins brought to the first outing. None of director Martin Campbell’s films since The Mask of Zorro have demonstrated the same whip-smart panache and sadly this sequel though serviceable is no exception. He competently carries off the necessary but familiar-feeling action set pieces and at times he lets the simmering sex vibe between his stars run loose albeit briefly on the screen. The film certainly isn’t so lackluster as to provoke bored Zs from the audience but it’s a shame to see El Zorro’s blade this dulled.