You may, if you’re old enough, recall a film called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Released eight years ago, it concerned a blacksmith’s apprentice named Will Turner, who encounters legendary pirate captain Jack Sparrow, and goes on an adventure to rescue a woman well above his station with whom he’s nonetheless in love. Black Pearl stands as one of the most pleasant big studio surprises of the 21st century. Sure-handedly directed by Gore Verbinski, and enlivened beyond measure by a fey, fumbling, genuinely bizarre performance by Johnny Depp as the Captain, the movie was a breezy, funny delight; classical Raiders-style adventure with just enough of a knowing smile.
Unsurprisingly, Black Pearl was also a smashing box office success and spawned a lucrative franchise, in which Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, directed by Rob Marshall, is the fourth entry. If you hadn’t seen the mediocre and rote middle two installments, you wouldn’t recognize this one. Sure, it has the plenty of the same bright-colored swashbuckling, accompanied by a rousing Hans Zimmer score; yes, there’s Johnny Depp, still making faces and running about with arms akimbo. The various features that, according to the clipboard of some studio executive somewhere, have made this franchise appealing are still here, cynically resurrected for our “entertainment.” But a simple, old-fashioned, instantly gripping story like Will Turner’s is nowhere to be found.
On Stranger Tides is, instead, convoluted and breathtakingly pointless. Bastardized from an extra-franchise novel by Tim Powers, the plot has Jack Sparrow joining the hunt for the fountain of youth, in the company of a sword-wielding babe (Penelope Cruz) and her father (Ian McShane), who happens to be Blackbeard, and who has supernatural powers for some reason. (Perhaps simply by virtue of being Blackbeard, though it is never explained.) They’re racing to the fountain (for some reason) against series mainstay Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and there’s something about needing a mermaid’s tear, and a hunky missionary distressed by the mermaid abuse this entails. (“I support the missionary’s position,” Depp quips.)
Depp’s a funny guy, and Jack Sparrow has some comic blood left in him. His antics are still good for a laugh or too here, particularly in a scene with the equally funny Richard Griffiths as a pompous duke. And there remains something appealing about an action hero this thoroughly unprepossessing; each of Sparrow’s feats of derring-do seems almost accidental.
What kills — destroys — On Stranger Tides is the story problem already mentioned. Who are these people? The heroes and villains are indistinguishable from one another to the point where the distinction loses it’s difference. Why does anything any of them does matter? Everyone seems largely immortal here anyway, so who cares about the fountain of youth, or who reaches it first? (A particularly good question since there’s no evidence the fountain will run out.) There is nothing and no one to root for. The entire movie is noise.
Over two hours of noise, I might add, optionally in murky, ugly retro-fitted 3D. On Stranger Tides bears little relationship to the spry, hilarious blockbuster that spawned it. It’s a dead-eyed corporate facsimile.
— Eugene Novikov