I can't say I was incredibly enthused or surprised when Disney announced in 2008 that a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie was happening. I enjoyed the first three buccaneer tales (although At World's End was WAY too long), but, like most franchises they try to extend past a trilogy, I wasn't looking forward to this franchise being run into the ground. The strange thing with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is that it's equal parts sequel and remake, and proof there is no more magic left in the pirates life.
On the surface, it looks like a new and improved pirates flick, keeping the most of the parts that worked (Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin R. McNally, writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) and excising others that, in my opinion, didn't work as well (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley's lame romance). They also welcomed in some great actors to the cast with Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Sam Clafin, along with a surprise cameo from a classy "Dame," and a story which featured those scurvy pirates heading out in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth. On the surface of this bombastic marketing campaign, it looked like Captain Jack was indeed back, and he brought some new friends along for the ride. Although, it becomes abundantly clear fairly early in, that these are not the same swashbucklers we once loved.
What surprised me the most is the truly lackluster script from Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who wrote the first three movies. I might be willing to give such lame writing a (bit of a ) pass, if it had been some fresh-off-the-bus writers who wowed Disney with some crazy pitch. But, nay, it was the old Pirate standard in Elliot and Rossio. However, back in January, Disney hired just one of the writers, Terry Rossio, for Pirates of the Caribbean 5, so perhaps there was some sort of falling out between the scribes. Whatever happened with the writers, it just didn't work. The movie kind of starts off on the right foot, with Captain Jack Sparrow's first mate, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin R. McNally), somehow being arrested and somehow being mistaken for Captain Jack himself... who in fact turns up as one of the frosty-wigged judges and slight hilarity ensues. After a lot of expository nonsense, we get to the crux of the matter: the Fountain of Youth. There is a three-way race for this mythical youth-giver, with the Spaniards, the royal British government, which has an unlikely new ally in Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), and Captain Jack, who finds himself in need of a ship and a crew. He finds one with an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz)... although it turns out to be the ship of Blackbeard (the wonderful Ian McShane)... who also happens to be Penelope's father... which also happens to be putting me to sleep.
It seems like Elliot and Rossio almost forgot to tell a straight-forward story, with more unnecessary twists than you can shake a scabbard at . There is even a line where they seem to wink at their own ridiculousness ("Did you just lie to me with the truth?") which speaks volumes for the weirdness we see and hear in Pirates 4. There are just way too many balls in the air here, too many stories to tell, including an absolutely worthless sub-plot involving a religious missionary named Philip Swift (Sam Claflin), who was captured by Blackbeard and joins them on this sorted journey. Although he ends up in a weird relationship with a lovely mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who he somehow feels the need to protect, this entire sub-plot seems to have been constructed for the sole purpose of one of the few decent jokes from Captain Jack Sparrow: "I agree with the missionary's position." It really feels that Elliot and Rossio just kept building and building and building, and didn't know how to stop.
Ian McShane is one of the few bright spots here as the nefarious Blackbeard, who manages to shine despite a lack of character development. Honestly though, you can put that guy in anything and he'll make it work. He really is the ideal choice to play Blackbeard, because he just has that awesome, weathered look which is perfect for a pirate captain. Blackbeard does have a nifty little gift though, the ability to make the dead the undead, with the help of his enchanted sword. Penelope Cruz doesn't give a bad performance at all, but her character Angelica's sorted and unnecessary history with Jack tends to take away from her performance. I also rather enjoyed Stephen Graham as Scrum, a fun yet minor character seemingly designed to take the place of loveable misfits Pintel and Ragetti from the original trilogy. Which brings us to Johnny Depp, the man who made pirates fun to watch again. Johnny Depp is still fun to watch as Captain Jack Sparrow, but there just doesn't seem to be anything new brought to the table this time around. I don't really think that's as much his fault, though, blame I place squarely on the worst aspect of this movie: director Rob Marshall.
When I first heard about Rob Marshall directing this sequel, it didn't make much sense to me, the guy who directed Chicago and Nine taking on a pirate movie. Then again, Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three movies, was the guy who directed Mousehunt and The Mexican before Pirates of the Caribbean. This time around though, it seems my original instinct was right. The trademark swordfight scenes which were highlights of the original movies, were reduced to over-edited, hacked-up garbage that only reflected Marshall's inability to direct a solid fight scene. Aside from that, Marshall's presence and Verbinski's absence is one of the only explanations for this overall intangible void in On Stranger Tides, something that you just know is missing, although you don't know where it's missing from. Marshall just doesn't seem to bring the same charm and zest out of Captain Jack Sparrow that Gore Verbinski could, and while that might not sound like much on paper, it is felt quite heavily on screen.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is dressed up like the same old pirate ship we've journeyed on for nearly a decade now. What you don't know is, until you get it out on the water, it has really sprung a few leaks, with patched-up fixes that look good on the surface, but eventually sinks this big metaphorical ship into the sea.