Director: Rob Marshall
Runtime: 136 minutes
Bloated, overwrought and soulless are just a few words I’ve heard thrown around in regards to Gore Verbinski‘s mammoth-budget Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. With a combined take of more than $2 billion worldwide, it came time for Disney to produce a fourth film in this amusement ride-turned-blockbuster mega-franchise. They took that reaction to heart, and in an effort to strip away the fat of the previous films, they’ve created a bare-bones, stand-alone adventure with Johnny Depp at the forefront, returning as Jack Sparrow. Gone are incoherent story threads, copious CGI, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and The Black Pearl. But the biggest and most disappointing element missing is ambition.
Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) takes the director chair for this strictly by-the-numbers adventure. The action feels as familiar as the drama it retreads. This isn’t something I would mind, if it was done well. It saddens me that Marshall doesn’t provide a single auteristic flourish to this film. It felt as if Bruckheimer created a drab storyboard and Marshall & crew simply executed it piece-by-piece to the studio’s liking. I’ll be the first to agree with the above sentiments of Verbinski’s sequels, but I’ll take a passionate misstep over an end product that feels carved to form the maximum amount of mass appeal.
As hinted in the final moments of At World’s End, this quest chronicles the search for the Fountain of Youth. Shot in 3D, I’m dumbfounded why anyone thought a dark and dreary opening scene would be a good idea. This bleak, spare production design is matched for a majority of this escapade with the vivid palette of Verbinski’s films missing. Through the extra layer of darkness we can just make out that a Spanish ship crew have also acquired a map for this coveted fountain. Back in London, Sparrow continues his tussle with the government, who have commissioned Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to also take part in the search. After a few successful escape attempts, Sparrow meets up with his former flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and moments later they are on board Queen Anne’s Revenge, piloted by captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
When one strips down everything to focus on its characters, it helps if said characters can hold any interest. With Depp and Cruz being two of the finest creatures crafted by God, it is astounding the lack of chemistry they possess, even when compared to their last team-up in Blow. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio do no favors, focusing on an utterly lame back story between the two, constantly hinting at the passionate relationship they once had. It feels so contrived one wishes their first meeting had been at the start of this film, and simply played out from there.
The main conflict, a race to the Fountain of Youth, is hardly enthralling. The group from Spain is introduced at the beginning, then just disappears before abruptly appearing at the finale to change things up. Then there is Rush as Barbossa, who is barely given enough screen time to justify his motivations. What could have been a riveting three-way chase, is instead the Jack Sparrow show. I would have also been fine with this, except Depp seems to be on auto-pilot. He has a few shining moments including interrupting a heated battle, and a couple biting one-liners we have come to expect, but for the most part his past unpredictable nature is muted. McShane, commanding Sparrow, plays the villain to the best of his ability. His scenery chewing is the most fulfilling out of anyone in the cast, despite the weak script giving him little range to show actual terror.
As for the action, most is a rehash from the past films, except for one completely odd sequence. Its absurdity is certainly praised, if only for the jolt of life it brings to the festivities, compared to the dullness permeating the rest of the film. Involving vampire-like mermaids that attack a small fleet of tiny vessels, it seems out of place for such an otherwise creatively bankrupt film. They fly and flop from one vessel to another attacking passengers, with some surprisingly bloody results. One of these mermaids (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) gets captured, in order to use her tear to unlock the power of the fountain, and a completely useless, one-note relationship with a clergyman (Sam Claflin) begins. Clearly a replacement for Bloom and Knightley, the lack of depth here leaves much to be desired.
Seeing what Marshall could bring to a big-budget franchise like this had me interested, but in the end, I only longed for Verbinski’s return. Spending his time on interesting, original projects like Rango is more than pleasing, but the epic scope he was able to deliver is sorely missing from On Stranger Tides. The result is a barely passable adventure that never reaches the depths of a truly terribly blockbuster, but revels in mediocrity from start to finish. The mere thought of launching a new trilogy off this seems like a ship that has long since sailed.
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