"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

Back in 2003, I was caught completely off guard by the original “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I wasn’t quite so in touch with the movie industry back then and I certainly didn’t have an awesome blog or anything like Movie News Today (shameless plug). I simply walked into a half-full theater with a couple of friends expecting to see a throwaway summer action film. Instead, I was introduced to a cultural phenomenon that made a ridiculous sum of money, garnered an Oscar nomination for one of the more unique characters of the decade, and spawned two of the most financially successful sequels ever. Who would have thought all of that could come from a rather mediocre amusement park ride? With “Stranger Tides,” the franchise is back from a four year hiatus with a few changes to the cast and crew and a stripped down plotline that will only marginally pacify the average “Pirates” fan.

We open on Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) up to his normal shenanigans, this time breaking out of the custody of a British duke and looking for a ship with which to sail forth to find the mythical Fountain of Youth. Soon afterward, he runs into Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame who has been posing as Sparrow to draw a crew for a very similar quest. After being drugged, Jack awakens to find himself aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a treacherous ship helmed by the famed pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who turns out to be Angelica’s father. Having recently heard a prophesy concerning his own death, Blackbeard is hard on the trail of the Fountain of Youth, only just ahead of the Spanish who wish to claim the Fountain for their own uses. Just behind the Spanish is a British ship, captained by Jack’s old nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). With three potential enemies closing in on his prey, Jack must think fast and come with a scheme that (per usual) calls for multiple double crosses and the pitting of each group against the others.

It’s clear from the outset that director Rob Marshall was given the directive to simplify his first venture into “Pirate” territory. One of the staples of the first three films is an overdone, convoluted plot that twists and turns so many times that it causes the viewer to simply fish or cut bait; you end up just saying, “yeah, sure” or “this is stupid and I’m out” pretty early on. This is especially prevalent in the sequels. That confusion is at the same time genius in that it covers up a multitude of plot holes and frustrating in that you spend half your time trying to figure out who just double crossed who (and more importantly why) and that ultimately takes away from your enjoyment. Or so I thought, anyway. As it turns out, the simplification of the plot results in what boils down to a pair of meaningless, shallow love stories that do their very best to stop the momentum of the film at every single turn. While the on-again-off-again, “maybe we’ll just kill each other, no wait, let’s make out instead” fling between Jack and Angelica is at least relevant to the story, the budding relationship between a young priest (Sam Claflin) and a captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) registers as nothing but noise and time filler. Their chemistry makes the connection between Thor and Doctor Jane Foster seem comparable to that of Harry and Sally. These wasted scenes combined with one of the biggest plot holes ever in the history of action movies (spoiler free version: pretty much everything to do with the Spanish) really detract from the value and enjoyableness of “Stranger Tides.”

That’s not to say it’s all bad. For one thing, I would say the fight scenes here are better (and even, dare I say, slightly more realistic) than in any of the previous “Pirates” films. Excellent, well-staged sword work abounds. In addition, the sets and settings are incredible. I expected this as each of the previous films, even at their worst, featured dynamic effects, sets, and landscapes and “Strangers Tides” certainly doesn’t disappoint. And all three of the leading men each have moments of brilliance. McShane, one of my very favorite actors and a menacing presence even in such lowbrow fare as “Hotrod,” is excellent as Blackbeard. Rush, meanwhile, does what he does best which is steal scenes with style and flair. In my mind, Barbossa is the most underrated part of this franchise as a whole. And then there’s Jack who I found to be a slightly more progressed version of himself here as opposed to when we last saw him in 2007. I felt that these new elements of (slight) maturity and morality complimented his usual quirky, jester-like persona. I’ve seen some reviews who have criticized Jack’s new sense of reality and the extra attention that he receives without Orlando Bloom or Kiera Knightley around to draw the camera away and I quite understand those points. At the end of the day, however, I think the majority of people who go to see “Stranger Tides” are doing so because they want to see Jack Sparrow and he doesn’t disappoint.

“Stranger Tides” definitely has some fantastic moments, though most take place in the first 30 minutes. In the end, I’m not sure how much better or worse this movie is than its two predecessors, quite honestly (though it’s clearly not in the same league as the original). It is meant to be nothing more than summer fun and yet its entertainment value is hampered by the missteps that keep it from ever getting traction. The end result is decent enough but not overwhelmingly enjoyable as it could have been.

Grade: B-

Pointless love stories are my nemesis,

Care for a second opinion? Check out Marshall and the Movies slightly less positive take.