At one point in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) slurs that “it’s not the destination that’s the main thing. It’s the journey.” If that journey is a voyage into the oceanic depths of tedium then, Johnny, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Forget having your timbers shivered, Pirates 4 barely makes a ripple in the water.
But before we begin this dreary adventure, let’s have a look at how we got to this point. The Curse of the Black Pearl, although half an hour too long, was an enjoyable romp with enough wit and swordplay to keep the whole family entertained. It also established Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, the endlessly camp Cap’n of the Black Pearl and part-time Keith Richards impersonator, mincing out of trouble at every turn. By the end of Dead Man’s Chest, however, Jack had overstayed his welcome and At World’s End was a nonsensical mess. But with a worldwide gross of over $2 billion, it was perhaps inevitable that Captain Jack would eventually return.
Picking up where At World’s End marooned us, On Stranger Tides’ plot essentially involves a race to the fountain of youth – with a lot of faffing about before anyone gets there. The film opens with an utterly superfluous pirate trial in London. A concealed figure is led to the docks where, it’s presumed, he will be tried and hanged. It’s not Sparrow though. It’s actually Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the previous films who has somehow been mistaken for his old chum. No matter, Sparrow has, by some unlikely fluke, impersonated the judge who will be holding the trial and finds Gibbs guilty of being innocent of being Jack Sparrow. Savvy? No, me neither. And things don’t become any clearer.
They escape the courthouse in a horse-drawn cart only to then be taken to see King George (a larger than life and grossly underused Richard Griffiths) where we finally get some plot. The King is commissioning an expedition to find the fountain of youth before the Spanish do and looks to enlist Jack who knows its whereabouts. The Captain of the expedition will be Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is now peg-legged after the Black Pearl was attacked and sunk (an episode mercifully kept off screen). Jack is, however, ‘disinclined to acquiesce’ to the king’s request and opts for escape again to search for the fountain himself. He jumps out of a window, swings into carriages (landing in a swooning Judi Dench’s lap in the process) before ending up at a rambunctious tavern frequented by his gaffer, played again by Keith Richards in a knowing cameo that really wasn’t funny the first time. Richards again showcases his impeccable acting chops, stumbling over his lines as he explains the ritual involved in finding the fountain (something to do with a couple of goblets and a mermaid) and warns his son, “The fountain will test ya Jacky” just as the film is already testing our patience.
Enter the delectable Penelope Cruz to spice things up as sultry seductress, Angelica. Her and Sparrow have a romantic but tumultuous past and she has returned to Jack seeking his help in search of…yep, you guessed it; the fountain of youth. Following yet more plot contrivances, the two of them end up aboard The Queen Anne’s Revenge, captained by Blackbeard (Ian McShane); the pirate all pirates fear. Supposedly because he has a zombie pirate crew and can apparently control his ship by suggestively stroking his sword. He’s also seeking the fountain after hearing of a prophecy foretelling of his death by the hand of a one-legged man (Oh, I wonder who that could be). And so they all set sail on their various plot strands. However, it soon becomes clear that these are most certainly not new waters.
Just like its two predecessors, On Stranger Tides begins to drown quite quickly in its numerous sub-plots with too much attention paid to character details rather than their motivations. At least in At World’s End it seemed like the plot was going somewhere (even if, in the end, that end made no sense). This fourth instalment spends most of its time treading water.
Things promised to be different. Gore Verbinski, director of the first three films, jumped ship, replaced here by Rob Marshall whose credits include the musicals Chicago and Nine. By the looks of it, he’d be better suited to direct a big-screen adaptation of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. Not to mention the axing of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom’s characters who, unfortunately, find their doppelgangers in an equally pouty mermaid and a similarly insufferable clergyman.
This is proposed to be the first film in a trilogy designed to reboot the series, but it isn’t exactly an auspicious start. These are decent actors scraping the barrels of characters well past their sell-by-date and this is a film that, for being the shortest in the series so far, feels like an eternity. My advice: “abandon ship!”
Good: Depp and Rush entertain on a couple of occassions.
Bad: Cruz is swamped, McShane doesn’t menace and Griffiths is overlooked. On Stranger Tides ends up being a soggy mess.