Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"


"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is simultaneously more and less coherent than its three predecessors.

Compared to "Curse of the Black Pearl," "Dead Mine Chest" and ... alright, I confess I don't really even remember the titles that well, so utterly forgettable were they in their total embrace of popcorn movie aesthetics. Anyway, compared to the first trio of films, "Stranger Tides" at least has a story that is relatively comprehensible, and keeps its roster of main characters trimmed to a manageable level.

At the same time, new director Rob Marshall's action scenes are murky and hard to follow. (A largely useless 3-D version doesn't help.) Say what you will about Gore Verbinski's slick, soulless and heavily CGI-assisted escapades on land and sea, but the man knew how to stage a sword fight.

Marshall, known for musicals ("Chicago," "Nine"), just can't find the rhythm. He falls back on the tricks of the inept pretender, chopping the action into frenetic bits that don't really seem to fit together.

Johnny Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow, slurring his dialogue with more zest than ever. The novelty of the character had worn off after the first movie, but he's still plenty of fun to have around.

His main foil is a female pirate, Angelica, played by Penélope Cruz. She and Sparrow had a fling once upon a time, and he even confesses to having "stirrings" beyond a momentary debauch. Alas, his vagabond ways asserted themselves and he left her high and dry. Now she's back to make his life miserable, and/or stir the embers.

I liked that the movie allows Angelica to have a little scar on her face and a little snarl to her personality. The screenplay (by "Pirates" vets Ted Elliott and Terry Rossario) goes beyond rendering her as a damsel in distress who knows how to use a sword, and allows her character to have as much duplicity and questionable moral character as Sparrow.

Turns out Angelica is the daughter of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who's after the Fountain of Youth that Sparrow holds a map to. Sparrow assumes that Angelica is simply conning the old pirate, and from the way he looks at her it's clear Blackbeard has had the same thought.

I admit to being rather disappointed with Blackbeard. He's got a magic sword that he can use to make his ship ensnare his enemies with rigging, but that hardly compares to the octopus-faced terror of Davy Jones or the skeletal undeath of Captain Barbossa. For all he's hyped up as the mother of evil piratry, Blackbeard just comes across as a grump with a curious tendency to let people live a lot longer than necessary.

Speaking of Barbossa, he's back again, played with a churlish twinkle by Geoffrey Rush, despite having been killed off once or twice. He's lost a leg but gained a writ of clemency from English King George in exchange for finding the Fountain before Blackbeard or the Spanish.

At 137 minutes, the movie is way longer than it needs to be, and several scenes bog down under the weight of their obligatory nature. For example, Keith Richards is trotted out again for a cameo as Sparrow's pirate daddy, with no more success than last time.

An extended sequence involving mermaids fares a little better, and the sea vixens are both magically alluring and terrifying. They can also, for some reason, shoot webs like Spider-Man.

Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey turn up as a young missionary aboard Blackbeard's ship and a mermaid with a conscious, who soon begins some inter-species romance. Like the now-departed Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the first "Pirates" flicks, they're pretty to look at, slightly dotty in their behavior and totally unnecessary to the plot.

Actually, now that I think of it that's a fair description of "On Stranger Tides" and the rest of the franchise: pretty, dotty and unnecessary.

2 stars out of four

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