Allan Heifetz looks for the virtues in the fourth installment of this franchise – and comes up empty.
SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD!
You have got to hand it to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies; they prove that pirate movies can be successful in today’s market. Remember The Pirate Movie (1982) with Kristy MacNichol and Christopher Atkins? It lasted one weekend in theaters before it was yanked. Then came the film version of The Pirates of Penzance (1983), starring Linda Rondstadt, Kevin Kline and Solid Gold’s Rex Smith. It was never given a wide release. Strangely enough, I remember watching Penzance at my parents’ friend’s house in ’83 on what was one of the first Pay-Per-View events on TV. I never bothered with Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) since by most accounts it’s a mess. Then came Cutthroat Island (1995), a film so cursed it ruined the careers of everyone involved and brought Carolco Pictures down with it. So let’s praise the Caribbean movies for rekindling our love affair with those murderous rapists of the sea.
Truth be told, I’m not a fan of the first three installments. A Pirates of the Caribbean movie always leaves me wanting less; less characters, less CGI spectacle and less of a convoluted and confusing story. These movies bludgeon you over the head with buckle swashing until you just want to close your eyes and experience nothingness.
At any rate, I was sort of looking forward to On Stranger Tides, which comes four years after the third and most hated chapter, At World’s End. This time there is no Orlando Bloom or Kiera Knightley mucking up the works; Johnny Depp’s “delightful” Captain Jack Sparrow is now front and center and ready to give us a good time. After pulling off the daring rescue of his pal Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from a London jail, Sparrow runs into Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame turned adventurer who happens to be the daughter of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Against his will Sparrow ends up on Blackbeard’s ship and is forced to guide the scary captain and his daughter to the fabled Fountain of Youth. At the same time, Sparrow’s old rival, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), is sailing to the fountain as well, having snagged the job of Captain on a royal expedition to plunder the fountain’s powers. Oh yeah, the Spaniards have a ship in the race too (just one of many story elements that could have been easily ripped out). On their way Blackbeard and crew must find some ancient chalices and snag a mermaid’s tear to help them activate the fountain.
What I like most about the Pirate movies is the makeup; a real sense of griminess and decrepitude permeates every scene. Everyone has horribly decaying teeth and is covered in soot. I could barely pay attention to the story for imagining just how ungodly these characters must smell. No toothbrushes? No showers? No vitamin C? Dear lord, can’t we just kill them all and let god brush their teeth? Stranger Tides coasts along on sheer spectacle for a good long while before that inevitable fatigue hits us. There are some great set pieces, breath taking crane shots of awesome looking ships and a pretty cool scene in which Sparrow’s crew falls victim to a school of seductive and super vicious killer mermaids.
Stranger Tides makes us wait two hours to get to the Fountain of Youth only to do absolutely nothing with the idea of a mythical magical fountain. Nobody ages rapidly and disintegrates in front of your eyes, nobody drinks too much from the fountain and turns into a baby or anything. Imagine if, at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Belloq opens the ark to find nothing but sand and then…that’s it. No screaming ghosts and no melting faces. That’s sort of what the finale of Stranger Tides is like.
Depp’s charm is palpable in Stranger Tides but after two hours of Captain Jack cracking wise, messing shit up and acting like a goof you sort of want him to stop the shenanigans, get angry and be a real hero. I prefer an action hero like an Indiana Jones who is serious, troubled, super-focused and will crack a joke only when cornered. Captain Jack is too silly and unreliable to really get behind. All he does is stumble into tedious sword fights and swing on things. I hate to say it but isn’t sword fighting in general fairly dull to watch? It’s especially dull in Stranger Tides since the film’s violence is completely sterilized and bloodless. After any given large scale swordfight you’re never sure whether everyone was killed or nobody was killed. Since nothing is at stake, you are never fully involved in the action. You know what Indy does to swordsmen? ‘Nuff said.
Penelope Cruz’s Angelica has all the gravitas of lovely Spanish wallpaper. She made me pine for the enchanting and smushed in face of Kiera Knightley. Cruz was super shrill, annoying and hard to understand in Blow (2001), the first film she appeared in with Depp and in Stranger Tides, she continues from there. Clearly Sparrow and Angelica are supposed to have Indy/Marion Ravenwood like chemistry, but Stranger Tides has no classic reunion scene like the one in Raiders where Indy walks into Marion’s Tibetan tavern after all those years only to get punched in the jaw. Sparrow and Angelica run into each other, spew a lot of awkward exposition about their past and continue to bitch back and forth until the end. We don’t care about their love. Ian McShane’s Blackbeard is quite frightening at first but over the course of this endless movie he loses his presence. It would have helped if we knew why he had supernatural powers and if we got to see a bit of his back story. Of course Keith Richards pops in for a meaningless cameo as Jack‘s pirate dad. What a horrible relationship this father and son have. Senior surprises Junior, Junior says “Hi dad,” Senior gives Junior some quick warnings in a pub and then vanishes into thin air when Junior isn’t looking. Wouldn’t a hug have been better?
Stranger Tides doesn’t really improve on the previous films and unless the next one gets an R rating, costs two million to make and is directed by Neill Blomkamp I don’t have much hope for the franchise.
Oh, and of course the 3D glasses made everything a little darker and therefore had me wishing I could watch it in 2D. Idea: why not boost the brightness on the entire film one stop so the glasses will make the picture normal? Genius.