Movie Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (**)


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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES.  141 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Rob Marshall.  Written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.

Alright, I'm just going to come right out and say it: the first Pirates of the Caribbean was just okay.  Good even.  A fun summer movie.  But not great.  Certainly not worthy of three inferior sequels, each one worse than the last.  These Pirates movies are prime examples of the law of diminishing returns.  Yes, Johnny Depp was a hoot as Capt. Jack Sparrow, and earned himself a surprise Oscar nom in the process.  But whatever charm and offbeat moxie Depp once brought to the role has long since vanished.  We've seen him go to the eccentric well one too many times of late, and the script lacks any real character development or witty one-liners to make Capt. Jack any more intriguing this time around.

By the end of the third film, At World's End, I had been beaten into submission.  That movie ran a punishing three hours long, and made me never want to see another Pirates movie again.  Yet, here we are, four years later and that's just what we have.  Chicago's Rob Marshall replaces Gore Verbinski as director (not a fair trade), and the producers seem to have taken some of the criticism of the last two sequels to heart.  On Stranger Tides is a tad more streamlined, less overly plotted, and scaled down in CGI effects work and scope.  Sounds like a good move, right?
Wrong.  This back-to-basics approach has the distinct reek of a direct-to-dvd sequel.  The movie still cost some $250 million to make, yet none of that money is up there on screen.  One senses that Depp and Bruckheimer pocketed two-thirds of it.  I hate sequels like this.  There's nothing really outrageously bad about On Stranger Tides.  But it doesn't raise the bar.  It doesn't give audiences their money's worth.  It doesn't deepen our understanding of the characters.  It simply exists.  Its sole purpose?  To scam audiences out of their hard-earned money and take advantage of the residual fondness people still have for that first film.

This time around, Capt. Jack is taken aboard the evil Blackbeard's (Ian McShane) ship in an attempt to find the Fountain of Youth.  Also aboard?  A love from Jack's past in the form of a nicely full-figured (thanks pregnancy!) Penelope Cruz.  The two have a sort-of bickering, love-hate relationship not unlike Indy and Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Too bad there's no chemistry between them.  Part of that has to do with Cruz's one-note performance (she's wonderful when speaking Spanish; can't act worth a damn when speaking English) and the fact that Depp's Capt. Jack never seems to give a lick about her or anyone else on screen.

Gone are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, but Geoffrey Rush is back as Capt. Barbossa.  Seriously, why is Capt. Barbossa still in these movies?  Can anyone explain that one to me?  The search for the Fountain of Youth is about as uninteresting as the writers can make it.  Travel on ships.  Wait.  Walk through jungle.  Wait.  There's no build-up, no intensity - this is one of the most leisurely adventures I've ever seen.  Not even zombies and killer mermaids can liven things up.  A romantic subplot featuring a young missionary and a captive mermaid goes nowhere, and only serves to take up screen time.
The Pirates movies have no trouble taking up screen time, by the way.  On Stranger Tides is billed as the shortest of the four, but it still runs some 141 minutes and feels like it lasts an eternity.  And, worst of all, the last scene hints at more Pirates sequels to come.  Look, I get why Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer want to continue to make these movies.  It's a financial windfall for them.  The math is easy.  But moviegoers have a say here.  If we stop going, they will stop making them.  It worked with the Saw franchise, it can work here.

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