Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ** ½
Directed by: Rob Marshall.
Written by: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio based on characters created by Elliot & Rossio & Stuart Beattie & Jay Wolpert and suggested by the novel On Strangers Tides by Tim Powers.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Penélope Cruz (Angelica), Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa), Ian McShane (Blackbeard), Kevin McNally (Gibbs), Sam Claflin (Philip), Astrid Berges-Frisbey (Syrena), Stephen Graham (Scrum), Keith Richards (Captain Teague), Richard Griffiths (King George), Greg Ellis (Groves), Damian O'Hare (Gillette), Óscar Jaenada (The Spaniard), Anton Lesser (Lord John Carteret), Roger Allam (Prime Minister Henry Pelham).

Normally by the fourth movie a franchise is merely running on fumes and memories of what audiences enjoyed in the past. The original director has moved on, much of the original cast has joined him, and the movie exists solely to cash in on the name the previous installments have established. All of this is certainly true for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie – On Stranger Tides. I went into the movie expecting the worst, and perhaps that’s why I ended up almost liking the movie. It certainly isn’t a great movie – it is marred by the over length and overstuffed nature that all the films in the series have been guilty of, and this time, other than Jack Sparrow, there really isn’t an interesting character on screen, but what it does, it does fairly well. It is a time waster to be sure, but not an altogether unpleasant one.

This time, we find Sparrow (Johnny Depp) without a crew or a ship, but of course being a wanted man. He learns that apparently Jack Sparrow is looking for a crew and is holding a casting call as it were at a local bar – since he isn’t actually doing this, he wonders who is, and goes to the bar himself. There he finds an old love, Angelica (Penelope Cruz) disguised as himself. They argue, it turns violent, Sparrow is knocked out and find himself aboard her ship – which actually belongs to her father Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Meanwhile, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is now working for the King, and also wants Captain Jack, because he is the only one who knows where to find the Fountain of Youth. Since the Spanish have sent a ship to find it as well, and seem to be making progress, everyone wants Captain Jack’s help. The movie essentially becomes a giant chase – with Blackbeard chasing the Spanish and Barbossa chasing Blackbeard, with Sparrow, of course, looking out for his own self interest at all times.

What I liked about this movie is that it is somewhat scaled back from how the original trilogy ended. The original movie remains the best, because not only was it somewhat original (especially Depp’s performance), but also because it the most straightforward of the series. As we got into the second and third installments, which told one huge story, the franchise got bogged down in far too much convoluted plot for its own good – and then it kept throwing on unnecessary characters on top of unnecessary characters (I’m still trying to figure out what the hell Ken Watanabe was doing in the third movie). Here, free of the over serious Orlando Bloom-Keira Knightley love plot, the movie is free to concentrate purely on Captain Jack – which is where we wanted it to be in the first place.

And yet, the movie still does have an overstuffed feel to it. The Spanish ship adds little to nothing but running time to the plot in this movie, and could have been done without. Barbossa seems to be in the movie mainly because they wanted to bring the fantastic Geoffrey Rush along for another ride, because really, he isn’t given much of anything to do. As Captain Jack’s “love interest”, Penelope Cruz is fine, but as with almost all of her English speaking roles, she lacks the fire she has when acting in her native Spanish (remember, her Oscar winning role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is in an English film – but she speaks almost all Spanish in it). Most disappointing, for me anyway, is that the movie completely and totally wastes Ian McShane as Blackbeard. For Deadwood fans like myself, you know just how great McShane can be, but here, his Blackbeard doesn’t really carry that much weight – doesn’t really seem to be all that dangerous. In fact, he seems like a pathetic coward. Clocking in at 137 minutes, the movie is shorter than the other movies in the series, but still at least a half hour too long. There comes a point where I just get a little bored watching pirates.

It must be said that Johnny Depp seems to still be having fun making these movies. He doesn’t phone it in here, and he is as good as always as Captain Jack. And yet, therein lies part of the problem. When they made the first Pirates movie, Depp’s performance as the effeminate, flamboyant, Keith Richards inspired Captain Jack was daring and original – now it’s about the safest thing in the world for him to do. The original movie turned him for a star into one of the biggest stars in the world. But I am a little tired of seeing him play Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s still entertaining, but there’s no surprises left in that character.

Overall, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn’t a horrible movie. It delivers what it promises, and director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine) handles it all fairly well. I doubt that fans of the series, who just want to see Depp prance around in a pirate costume will be disappointed in the film. For me though, it just isn’t enough anymore.

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