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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 3D (2011)

May 20, 2011

written by: Ted ElliottTerry RossioStuart Beattie & Jay Wolpert (screenplay) and Tim Powers (story)
produced by: Jerry Bruckheimer
directed by: Rob Marshall
rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo)
137 min.
U.S. release date: May 20, 2011
              
By the time 2007’s “At World’s End”, the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride (er, movie) was over, I was ready to see the Disney/Bruckheimer franchise landlocked. The first three movies went from a surprisingly clever adventure to a double dose of  bigger and louder that went CGI overboard, resulting in an incomprehensible whirlpool that left me seasick. Regardless, fans ate it up like a Friday night fish fry and the inevitable sequel(s) would eventually sail into theaters. Well, that day is upon us in the presumptuously titled “On Stranger Tides”, that all but loses its bearings on a most predictable course.
      
What’s strange is how this attempt at a clean slate all starts, dipping us from a mysterious scene at sea that’s somehow linked Ponce de Leon and dropping us in 18th Century London, of all places. Here, we find a bewigged Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) attempting to free his first mate, Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally), who’s on trial for piracy. Of course, that doesn’t go as planned and soon Jack is shackled and brought before King George II (Richard Griffiths), who tells him he must join an expedition in search of the Fountain of Youth. Why? So Britain can outlive the rest of the world? It’s just the first of many undefined plot points that are quickly disregarded, in an effort to move from one exposition-filled scene to the next.


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Leading the expedition is none other than Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now peg-legged and serving the King as a privateer. This doesn’t sit well with Jack, especially when he learns that Barbossa lost his beloved Black Pearl in a battle with the dreaded Blackbeard. We then witness Jack’s humorous escape, which leads to an entertaining chase through the streets of London, conveniently ending right where he needs to be, at the door of Captain Teague (Keith Richards), Jack’s father. Like a scene before a new video game mission, Teague tells Jack what he’ll need before he gets to the Fountain (just a mermaid tear and a couple of silver chalices), and warns him (and us) that this journey may just be his undoing. 

Jack then turns around and conveniently faces someone who’s been masquerading as him, going around town gathering a crew to pursue the Fountain. It’s supposed to be a secret, but anyone who knows who’s in this movie, knows who it is right away. The reveal is a sword-clashing meet-cute with Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a fiesty old flame of Jack’s who drags him onto the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a decrepit ship commanded by the vile Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who turns out to may or may not be her father. Blackbeard is convinced he must acquire the magical powers of the Fountain in order to escape the prophesied death by a one-legged man. 

What follows is a plodding race to the Fountain that involves three parties: Blackbeard’s ship, Barbossa’s ship and a Spanish crew; the latter of which is barely given any screen time, only becoming a token threat later on. On board Blackbeard’s ship is Phillip (Sam Claflin) a handsome young missionary, who is kept alive because Angelica thinks her father’s soul is still salvageable. But we know he’s there to replace Orlando Bloom, and the mermaid Philip falls for, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) has to be his object of desire because Keira Knightley smartly opted out of this retread as well. 


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That’s right, there are mermaids! Beautiful, alluring creatures with sharp teeth (when provoked) and a taste for pirate flesh. It’s slightly unsettling at first but seeing an army of them attack helpless pirates is kinda cool. But a little is enough and we see a bit too much of them before they become overwhelming. Unfortunately, they are the most threatening characters in “On Stranger Tides”, which doesn’t say much about Blackbird.  

There may not be anything entirely different here since everything has to fall in line with the well-oiled Bruckheimer machine, but the hope is new characters under new direction can revitalize the franchise into even more sequels. At first, McShane and Cruz, even director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), seem to satisfy 2 hours and 20 minutes of your time, but then in retrospect, neither of these contributors add much of anything. About an hour after the movie was over, I found the whole thing almost completely forgettable. 

McShane has proven in other films that he has the potential to be a ferocious menace. He’s hardly a threat here, in fact his blood-soaked ship and magical sword is more interesting than he is. And a clearly pregnant Cruz is wasted as well. She seems to do exactly what’s expected of her: smolder and go haywire, like a Spanish Daffy Duck. Who knows what happened with these two actors? It could be what they had to work with though. One needlessly drawn-out scene comes to mind where Blackbeard plays a makeshift game of Russian roulette with Jack, putting Angelica’s life at risk. And what for? Comic relief? It’s not funny if you’re hoping one of them would jump off a cliff, while you’re watching it.

It made me realize how Gore Verbinski, who previously directed the other three, was a vital asset to making these movies work. The last two weren’t as good as the first one, but at least all three of them had a well-choreographed artistic style that deftly balanced a good amount of thrills, quirk and tripped-out sequences. Marshall doesn’t deliver any of that, hiding behind a slickly established production team that does little with 3D, while allowing actors to read from scene to scene as Depp does his thing. 


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Supposedly, the story is somehow inspired by Tim Powers 1987 book On Stranger Tides, which makes me believe that the screenwriters were searching high and low for inspiration. That should’ve been an indication that the last film was a perfect way to end it all. But that’s not how the system works. Disney knows the built-in audience for these films, so it’s a no-brainer to provide them exactly what they want: more of the same.

It’s true, no one else can play Jack Sparrow life Johnny Depp, but how much more of Jack Sparrow do we need? The role earned him an Oscar-nomination the first time around, but now we have the same character, again and again. Depp is still comical and lively as Sparrow, but there’s a growing weariness on his face that tells me he shouldn’t be here. I was reminded how Sparrow was never considered to be a main character, when I noticed that Depp’s best scenes are the few he shares with Rush. If every Halloween and comic book convention has a Jack Sparrow, than Depp isn’t really bringing us anything rare or original.  It’s too late though, Depp will be back as Sparrow as long as the House of Mouse will have him.

It may be less confusing than the last two movies, but much of the zest and zeal is lost at sea. Instead, we get a more streamlined paint-by-numbers “Pirates”,  with all the necessary conventions that made the other movies recognizable. Filled with one coincidental encounter after another,  characters go from here to there with hardly any motivation or stakes thrust upon them. Sure, there’s still fun to be had here and laughs aplenty, but when nothing inventive or unique is added, it kind of feels like a cash grab when all is said and done.  
 

RATING: **

      
        
    
      
                          
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