Johnny Depp swaggers and stumbles his way into Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth entry in the faltering series, collecting another hefty paycheck along the way.
It’s perhaps a touch cynical to suggest that it was only money that persuaded Depp to don the garb of Captain Jack Sparrow again, but it must have played a big part, because for all the effort that’s been put into this, it can’t shake off the shackles of its predecessors, and as such it shares a few of their charms, but unfortunately it also comes saddled with many of their flaws, which began to creep in during sequel one and made their presence further felt in sequel two.
Sequel three opens in London, where someone is moonlighting as Cpt. Jack Sparrow, trying to put a crew together under the watch of the fearsome pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) in order to set sail for the fountain of youth. Richard Griffiths shows up briefly as a squinty, pompous George II, who captures the real Jack and informs him that the British are trying to beat the Spanish to the same objective. So there are three sets of people after the same prize. Four, really, if you include a splinter group in the midst of one of the main parties.
Therein lies the first of On Stranger Tides’ glaring similarities to the second and third entries in this series: motivations here, motivations there, double-crosses and hidden agendas; it’s all a bit too hazy. Most of it makes sense – most of it – but again the characters’ motives are not drawn clearly enough and, even when they are, they aren’t particularly strong. In one late scene, set on an island that will be familiar to series fans, Jack’s earlier discourse is rendered meaningless in the pursuit of a joke. Speaking of pursuing gags to no end, look out for Keith Richards momentarily reprising his role as Jack’s father, in a redundant and silly cameo early on.
As with the previous Pirates films, at times it looks lovely and, as with the previous films, there is some playfully well-choreographed action to enjoy. Problem is, there isn’t anything in this film that trumps anything in the previous ones; what this film does, they did better, and On Stranger Tides so genuinely wants to imitate their playful sense of fun that it forgets that, at one stage, it wanted to do something new. Ian McShane is effective as Blackbeard but he’s hardly a villain for the ages and the Spanish are barely involved. Elsewhere, good character actors like Stephen Graham are completely wasted in uninteresting and underwritten roles, and the moments of whimsy only flirt with real laughs, whereas the japes in the original trilogy frequently raised a smile. Penelope Cruz, meanwhile, is convincing as a pirate and brings some gusto, but not a huge amount else.
It’s ironic that the plot concerns the fountain of youth because the series has grown older and staler with this entry, a blockbuster that is nothing more than serviceable and fitfully entertaining. I was going to make some lame joke about Pirates swashbuck ling under the pressure but, in reality, it hasn’t; it’s played it safe, it’s stuck to the series’ guns; to the film’s detriment but probably to the box office’s delight.