Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is Disney's desperate attempt to throw off all the baggage of the previous sequels and get back to the simple pleasures of a half-mad swashbuckling Johnny Depp. And this time, there's mermaids!
But is it any good? Sort of. It's less muddled than the last two Pirates sequels and maybe a bit more down to earth — but it's also not quite as fun. And it's pretty relentlessly predictable. Spoilers ahead...
The plot of On Stranger Tides is refreshingly simple. The location of the Fountain of Youth has been discovered two hundred years after Ponce de Leon's famous expedition, and three factions go in search of it: the Spanish, the British (led by Geoffrey Rush's "reformed" pirate Hector Barbossa, now a privateer in the service of King George II), and pirates, under the command of the legendary Blackbeard (Ian McShane).
For his part, Blackbeard wants the Fountain of Youth so that he can cheat his prophesied death, which will almost certainly come at the hands of Barbossa. Under Blackbeard's command are his daughter and first mate Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and, rather less willingly, Johnny Depp's scurrilous rogue Captain Jack Sparrow. Blackbeard believes Sparrow can lead him to the Fountain of Youth, which requires a mermaid's tear to transfer life from one person to another. To that end, Blackbeard captures the mermaid Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), who forms an unlikely bond with Blackbeard's prisoner, the missionary Philip (Sam Claflin).
Now, make no mistake: there is absolutely no solid creative reason why On Stranger Tides should exist. But that's nothing new, really - Pirates of the Caribbean was a goofy good time that pretty much said everything there was to be said about its characters and its setting, and that didn't stop them from making two of the biggest, loudest, and most unnecessarily convoluted sequels in movie history.
But we live in an era where Hollywood long ago stopped asking why a film should exist, instead being merely content to shrug, mutter "Why not?", and throw 150 million dollars at some reheated half-concept. That's just what the cinematic landscape is now, and it doesn't necessarily mean all these third and fourth sequels have to be bad (just look at Fast Five). So I don't think the intrinsic staleness of Pirates of the Caribbean is enough to dismiss it — maybe this film can offer us something new and unexpected that reinvigorates the whole franchise. Yeah, about that...
The Pirates movies all run on being gratuitous and pointlessly bombastic, and the apparent hope is that Johnny Depp (and, to a lesser extent, Geoffrey Rush) are just charismatic enough to paper over those faults. These are films that are, at their best, driven by performances. And sure, there's a ton of talent in this cast, but it's really only Depp (and, again to a lesser extent, Rush) who gets material even remotely worthy of his abilities. McShane in particular is pretty much completely wasted as Blackbeard, his immense talents for moral ambiguity and sympathetic villainy almost entirely reduced to playing just another generic baddie.
This movie does at least get one thing right - it cuts away almost all of the ludicrously complicated mythology that had overwhelmed the first two sequels. On Stranger Tides seems to assume that you've seen the original movie, but it understands if you bailed somewhere during Dead Man's Chest or World's End. Apart from a brief Keith Richards cameo as Sparrow's father, there's nothing to tie this film to the previous two movies, and that's probably for the best. (There's also Barbossa's resurrection, I suppose, but then about half of the major characters should by rights be dead before the story even begins.) If nothing else, this is a leaner movie than its predecessors, and it's much easier to just switch your brain off and enjoy it as a result.
Speaking of mythology, one of the (many) things that the original Pirates of the Caribbean got right that the sequels lost sight of was its handling of the supernatural elements. The original movie felt like one set in an exaggerated version of the real 1700s, a world where curses and magic can be real but are still amazing and terrifying to those who encounter them. The sequels, on the other hand, were set in some weird, fiendishly complex alternate reality where mystical beings freely hobnobbed with normal humans and at least half a dozen magical talismans and creatures could let whoever controlled them rule the world.
On Stranger Tides moves a little bit away from that - the movie opens in what feels like a reasonable approximation of 1740s London, and the Fountain of Youth is treated more as the stuff of legends and rumors than as a weekend getaway spot. Unfortunately, the movie undoes most of that by taking Blackbeard — the first actual historical pirate to appear in the series — and making him just another supernatural bad guy, complete with voodoo zombies and a magical sword. This is a guy who in real life tried setting his beard on fire just to look slightly more intimidating; as such, it's a bit irritating that the movie thinks he needs magical embellishment to make him scary, particularly when they already got consummate badass Ian McShane to play the role.
Now, don't get me wrong — I realize the supernatural is a key part of the Pirates franchise, and that isn't going to change. In fact, my favorite part of the movie is probably its most out-there component, and that's the mermaids. The movie treats mermaids as creatures that strike terror into even the hardiest sailors, and they actually come perilously close to living up to that hype. The first mermaid appearance really is tense and unsettling, and the all-out battle between pirates and mermaids is actually pretty awesome, particularly when mermaids leap out of the sea to thwack the humans with their giant fishtails. It's a genuinely unexpected moment in a film that otherwise feels so relentlessly predictable.
Chicago and Nine director Rob Marshall has replaced Gore Verbinski behind the camera, and it's hard to call that an upgrade. Verbinski's main talent with the Pirates movie was his approach to action setpieces, which were basically the cinematic equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. (For all its narrative faults, I'm still amazed by the climactic setpiece in Dead Man's Chest, which is a three-way swordfight on a moving water wheel in the midst of a sea monster attack). Marshall can't match Verbinski in terms of sheer kinetic visuals, and I simply wasn't as impressed by the action sequences in On Stranger Tides compared to those in the previous entries.
During the press tour, Marshall said he approached the action setpieces like he would the choreography of a music number, and there are times when that approach works fine — the opening London chase scene is probably the highlight — but it still feels like a step down. Part of the problem is one that's been creeping into the Pirates franchise ever since two literally unkillable immortals had a sword fight in the first movie: it never feels like there are any real stakes to any of this, or that anyone is in any real danger.
I'm willing to suspend my disbelief enough to buy that mermaid tears can give you immortality, but not enough to ever believe that Jack Sparrow is in actual peril, even when he's being pursued by an entire regiment of the British army. I'm not sure there's really a way around this — I mean, they already killed off Captain Jack once, and it didn't take — but it does mean the action sequences need to have something extra special to remain compelling. Marshall's work is perfectly competent, but it isn't enough.
And really, that speaks to the more basic problem with this movie: it's just all so damn predictable. Everything falls into the same repetitive pattern, as Jack finds himself in some impossible situation, comes up with some simultaneously clever and insane way out of it, only to be betrayed or recaptured, and then he'll probably switch allegiances or completely change his character, seemingly just for the hell of it. Even a fundamentally chaotic character like Jack Sparrow has become sort of vaguely predictable in his unpredictability at this point.
You also know nobody important is going to die except maybe at the very end of the movie. In fact, when one relatively major character does appear to die halfway through, it's a legitimately shocking moment, and it temporarily gives the movie an edge that the franchise long ago lost. But then the whole thing is undone, and we're right back in the same old rut.
That's really what it all comes down to. If you love watching Captain Jack Sparrow for about two hours and want to see him doing roughly the same things he's always done, only ever so slightly different, then I imagine you'll enjoy this movie. If you're tired of the formula, then On Stranger Tides is unlikely to restore your interest. But hey, there's always the fifth movie! I just wish I knew whether that was a promise or a threat, but I have a sinking suspicion that I know the answer.