18 May 2011

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
2011, 140mins, 12
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer (s): Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast includes: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally
UK Release Date: 18th May 2011

In 2003 audiences were surprised and delighted by “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, a brilliantly executed blockbuster that breathed much needed life into the limp seafaring subgenre. The film was a box-office behemoth, and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination, his rascally interpretation of Captain Jack Sparrow having subsequently entered into Hollywood legend. However the franchise took a tumble with its 2006 and 2007 follow-ups, a pair of sequels that over analyzed the original movie’s mythology, causing their runtimes to become unnecessarily bloated. With the trilogy seemingly complete, Disney has decided to reboot the formula with “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, bringing in a host of new faces to interact with Captain Jack. Directorial responsibility has also shifted, out goes Gore Verbinski, and in comes Rob Marshall, a filmmaker more renowned for his contributions to musical cinema than any sort of proper swashbuckling credentials. Marshall never seems completely at ease with the material, and as a result “On Stranger Tides” is a wearisome sit, falling foul to the same misguided writing habits that plagued its immediate predecessors.

Summoned before King George II (Richard Griffiths), Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is tasked with leading a British fleet to the Fountain of Youth. Evading this chore, Jack quickly finds himself caught up with old flame Angelica (a radiant but wasted Penélope Cruz), a woman with little affection for Jack’s debauched mannerisms. Angelica tricks Jack into joining her father’s crew, the paternal figure in question being Blackbeard (Ina McShane), one of the nastiest pirates to have ever sailed the high seas. It transpires that Blackbeard is also seeking the Fountain of Youth, pitched in a race to reach it before the Spanish or the British, the latter now being led by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). However before arriving at the famed destination, the various crews have to attain a selection of objects, for without them the fountain’s powers are void.

“On Stranger Tides” is unquestionably a bad sequel, but it does boast a few positives. Depp is once again good value as Sparrow, looking much more alert in the part than he did during 2007’s “At World’s End”. The script is a flaccid mess, but when it affords Depp an opportunity for comedy he grabs it, using his natural charisma and the character’s cheeky sensibility to solid effect. I laughed a few times during “On Stranger Tides”, and most of those giggles can be attributed to Depp’s spirited turn. There are also two decent action sequences of note, the first involving Sparrow’s escape from London is generic but well constructed, Marshall using the musical score, Depp and his lively camerawork to permeate an aura of genuine fun. Also enjoyable is a segment involving a group of hostile mermaids, the film mining a healthy amount of tension from the set piece.

The screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is ghastly, the writers illogically and unsatisfactorily combining random plot points to cultivate a dire excuse for a narrative. “On Stranger Tides” is just as bunged as the initial sequels, and at 140 minutes outstays its welcome by at least half an hour. The filmmakers apparently approached this fourth installment with the intention of streamlining the storytelling, but it becomes clear very quickly that they’ve failed miserably. The movie adds in a race element that’s never properly exploited (the Spanish participants aren’t even given personalities), whilst every fresh character feels pathetically underdeveloped. Cruz is saddled with a formulaic, sassy love interest stereotype to work with, the actress looking just as bored as viewers are bound to feel. Ian McShane’s Blackbeard is embarrassingly forgettable, the usually dependable actor giving an intensely unimaginative turn as the supposedly nefarious villain. Geoffrey Rush is fine, although Barbossa has no real need to feature, the character’s presence further highlighting the overstuffed nature of the writing.

The exotic locations are lusciously depicted, but for the most part the action is excruciatingly tedious. Leaving aside the aforementioned moments featuring London and mermaids, “On Stranger Tides” is comprised mostly of turgid swordfights, and heartbreaking CGI overload. The large portions of dry exposition are challenging enough, but Marshall also makes the mistake of rendering his central instances of bombast tiring, providing no oasis of relief amongst the toxic combination of too much talking and too little dynamism. It’s abundantly clear the director wasn’t suited for this task, everything from the clunky editorial choices to the unimpressive swings at slick spectacle suggesting the filmmaker is too far removed from his comfort zone.

Depp and Cruz share no chemistry, robbing “On Stranger Tides” of the fizzy sex appeal its marketing hinted at. The scribes attempt to force in a romantic subplot between a misunderstood mermaid and hunky cleric, but it’s a shoddily designed and silly addition to the tale, the arc dying on screen almost immediately. It’s hugely disappointing to watch the “Pirates of the Caribbean “series self-destruct so viciously here, almost everything the production attempts feels like an artistic miscalculation. This is a franchise well past its sell by date, and punters would be wise to avoid it, forcing Captain Jack to walk the metaphorical plank for good.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011


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