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.
The film examines the ugliness of politics and how in this case homophobia can affect an election. Jack Kray (Michael Lerner) is a conservative U.S. Senator from the Deep South with a dark secret in his family--his son Henry (Matt Newton) is gay. Meanwhile Henry is going about his business entering a new college and essentially coming out and accepting his sexuality. The senator's alcoholic/shopaholic wife Eunice (Karen Allen) is a comical all-knowing Southern belle who sends a young Republican to spy on her son but Skip (Ian Reed Kesler) takes his job a bit too seriously and goes too far undercover. As dad's political aspirations get higher Henry is becoming more comfortable with his sexuality. Of course when the parents come to visit the Civil War gets revived and relived. The actors fit nicely into their varied roles as ugly or sympathetic cruel or friendly deceitful or honest as they may be. Poster Boy is told in a rather disconcerting confessional style mostly through Henry and the talky narrative can often be distracting. But Newton is subtle sexy and low-key. Lerner as the evil Senator Kray is perhaps too mean-spirited and over the top but he's credible. Allen is also sort of one note but makes her tough-talking chain-smoking distant mother almost sympathetic. And as a side player Jack Noseworthy does well as a liberal campus activist stuck in a dilemma over whether to pursue a guy he's really attracted to or whether to blow the whistle and out the son of a homophobic politician. Director Zak Tucker has molded an astonishing cast for a decent film debut. Even in these supposedly enlightened times the lives of a politician's family does play into the voter's psyche (big surprise). There are some painfully unnecessary moments like when Skip who can't deal with his own self-loathing screams he hopes Henry catches AIDS and dies. But Poster Boy thankfully doesn’t hit you over the head with its message but rather lets it wash over you.