Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Review
It is a matter of some relief to report that the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, On Stranger Tides, is nowhere near as misbegotten as At World’s End, the last sequel. A mind- and bum-numbing series of chases and noise, followed by more chases and noise, and made worse by a convoluted and frankly depressing storyline, At World’s End must have come close to killing off any audience goodwill left over by the hit original. Yet, despite a change of director, POTC: On Stranger Tides sticks very close to the formula that has seen the series rake in over $2.6bn worldwide so far, and if you’re still not won over by Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow then you are advised to steer well clear. For everyone else, it’s pretty much business as usual. This is the entry that needed to get the franchise back on track for Disney, and it just about manages to do so.
We rejoin Jack (Depp) and salty right-hand man Gibbs (Kevin McNally) in London, where Jack is to be tried for piracy. After a failed escape attempt, Jack ends up in the court of King George II (Richard Griffiths), where he is asked what he knows about the Fountain of Youth, which the King of Spain is on the verge of finding. It turns out someone is impersonating Sparrow and trying to recruit a crew to seek out said fabled waters. It doesn’t take long for Jack to be pressganged on to the ship belonging to the “pirate all pirates fear”, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and chased after by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now in the employ of His Majesty tasked with claiming the Fountain for the British crown.
If there’s one thing that On Stranger Tides can’t be accused of, it’s standing still. Every act and every scene is full of movement, and in the sense that this franchise is based on a fairground ride, this seems appropriate. But, if you’ll forgive the pun, On Stranger Tides is content to tread water. Despite a change in directors, with Chicago director Rob Marshall stepping in to Gore Verbinski’s shoes, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. For a franchise as profitable as this one, a seamless change at the helm was probably top priority, but a chance to put right some of the series’ missteps has gone begging.
Once again the pauseless action squeezes out any suspense or surprise that the story might have. The oft-quoted complaint about a script being nothing more than a string of action sequences was never more true than here. To be fair, it looks superb and the action is competently done – but then it should do with a budget reportedly around the $250m mark. The early chase through London is good fun, but after that it’s back to the high seas and exotic locales (the highpoint being an attack by some rather nasty mermaids) until the cave-set finale which looks stagey and dark, and in fact rips off Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It may not be as confusing or exhausting as part 3, but there is a sense that we’ve seen this all before.
The saving grace, as in the first film, is Johnny Depp’s inspired turn as the half-mad, half-drunk Sparrow. He’s as engaging/annoying (delete as appropriate) here as he always is, and now he no longer has to compete with the turgid Orlando Bloom/Keria Knightley romance for screen time, they having thankfully been given the heave-ho. Thus Sparrow becomes the primary protagonist here and is duly rewarded with a love interest of his own, Penélope Cruz’s cute but fiery Angelica. Their screwball romance enlivens proceedings somewhat, but other characters are as damp as the proverbial squib. Geoffrey Rush looks ever so slightly bored throughout the entire film, while disappointingly McShane is left with little to do except glower and steer his ship using some unexplained magic. It's all mildly diverting, but nothing more. The less said about the 3D the better.