A viewing of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” confirms two things: Johnny Depp is The Franchise for this series, now in its fourth installment, and this one will make a great deal of money indeed. It’s blockbuster time at the movies, again, so the bigger, louder, and more action-packed the, um, better?
Not really, sadly enough. Much of the film is just a muddle — a bright, spectacular, sometimes witty one, but a muddle, for all of that. The plot, or plots, involve a three-way search for the Fountain of Youth, a father/daughter reunion, dueling (literally) lovers, and the love of a missionary for a vampire mermaid. Oh, yeah, and zombies, let’s not forget the zombies. Director Rob Marshall should get some credit for riding herd on (count ‘em) nine credited screenwriters; however, not surprisingly, the collaborative effort loses its way.
When that happens, Marshall resorts to yet another swordfight, of which there are simply too many to count. (After the first three or so, I lost track and interest.) In the original number, these were treated somewhat tongue (or sword) in cheek, subtly parodying the old swashbuckling pirate flicks that began in the silent film era. Here, they become the main item of attention, and the movie loses momentum every time the scabbards are emptied.
As Capt. Jack Sparrow, Depp (or his stunt double) handles his weapon adroitly enough, though he’d much rather bet on a sword fight than participate in one. The movie’s best parts aren’t its action scenes, though; they’re Depp’s repartee with costars Penelope Cruz and Geoffrey Rush. Depp gets all the good lines, again, although Cruz (as his lover) and Rush (as his nemesis) are certainly game and, in their very different ways, interesting to look at. (Cruz’s best moment occurs at the very end of the final credits.) Ian McShane is serviceable enough as Blackbeard, the only character for whom there is an actual historical model.
But we’re clearly not looking for realism here, in any case, any more than we will be in the inevitable list of comic superhero films to come. Summertime has become fantasy time, in the same way that “beach books” are released as the weather heats up. We’re disappointed if we don’t get exactly what we expect, rather than valuing surprise or innovation. When the fourth in a series delivers pretty much the same product as the first three — with maybe some enhanced special effects — we’re satisfied.
Now, I’m as much a sucker for a good series as the next guy: the Bourne movies, for instance, rank among my favorites, but in some part because the characters are built upon, or given some depth, some complexity that we hadn’t seen before. Depp’s Jack Sparrow doesn’t do this, though his blend of mincing, cocky, clever, even slightly effeminate characteristics is great fun to watch, time and again. Cruz, an Oscar winning actress and no slouch, is basically eye candy here; ditto Rush, whose performance in “The King’s Speech” should have added another Academy Award to his collection but who is mostly doing caricature in this one.
I don’t flatter myself that I will discourage anyone from going to “Pirates: Pt. IV”: the formula is too successful and the ad budget way too big for that. I would, however, like to discourage parents from taking their preteens to this “PG-13” movie. There’s plenty of gore, sexual innuendo, and what I laughingly call “adult material” for the youngsters to experience. Let them have their fun outside as spring finally comes around.