Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Simultaneously inoffensively fun and thoroughly lightweight and forgettable, this fourth entry in the Pirates franchise disregards previous leads Will and Elizabeth, and instead focuses on Jack Sparrow as he ventures in search of The Fountain of Youth. I use the term "focuses" lightly; while the central narrative actually does involve Captain Jack this time, he is merely a cog in a larger machine that also includes a haunted ship, run by the legendary Blackbeard and his daughter, a Spanish fleet en route to desecrate the Fountain for Catholicism, and the British Navy, led by a tenuously reformed Captain Barbossa. Jack drunkenly blunders his way in and around these elements, flirting with Blackbeard's daughter (who is, in a lame and obvious twist, a former flame), and fighting alongside Barbossa, leading up to the final showdown at the Fountain of Youth. If the plot seems telegraphed and obvious, that's because it is; eschewing the complicated narrative overlapping of the last two films, the writers have created a streamlined scenario with clear-cut conflicts and tensions, without very much in the way of subtlety or subtext. This both works for and against this chapter, for while the lack of pretension and heavy-handedness allows one to further enjoy both the gorgeous production design and Jack's humorous demeanor, the obvious lack of substance or any memorable, distinctive moments can be directly attributed to that decision. However, where the script fails is where the crew pick up the pace, creating lovely, detailed environments (aside from the anticlimactic Fountain, itself) that are lensed and rendered beautifully, hampered only by the restricted staging and lifeless action scenes (save for the introductory London setpiece) that can be attributed to inexperienced (and overrated) director Rob Marshall.

Another huge problem with deviating completely from the preexisting formula, and cast, of the series is the necessity to shoehorn in a new collection of characters to rival the originals. For the most part, this leads to undeveloped, undercooked, and generally uninteresting roles like Ian MacShane's Blackbeard (a tired mad pirate caricature), his daughter (an indifferent Penelope Cruz, whose entire character is encapsulated by a reference to her "fiery blood from her Latin mother"), a stowaway priest (a clearly contrived substitute for Orlando Bloom), his mermaid love interest (a clearly contrived substitute for Keira Knightley), and a lame, barely-seen captain of the Spanish fleet (a central villain with maybe 5 lines). Faring better amongst the new blood are Scrum, yet another entry in the series collection of grizzled crewmen, who, as played by Stephen Graham, is hilarious, endearing, and more of a presence than any of the glorified extras who swabbed the decks before him, and Richard Griffiths, who absolutely kills it in a cameo as King George. But, even more evident here than in At World's End, the secret weapon of this franchise remains not Johnny Depp, who has a jolly time while not bringing anything new to the table, but rather Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa. His long face, his bulging eyes, his epic line delivery, and, while posing as a good, stalwart Englishman, his splotchily dyed skin and pathetic wig all fit perfectly well into this pirate universe, and his exuberant presence, as in the third one, goes a long way into legitimizing the "piracy" of the film. By the time him and Jack were tentatively teaming up against the Spaniards, I was more on board with the franchise than I had been since the finale of Curse of the Black Pearl, and for a while, the film really allows these two characters to optimally utilize their well-worn characters for an ideal sense of breezy, humorous adventure. His contribution to the franchise, and, especially, to this film in particular, cannot be overstated; he, rather than the Keith Richards impersonation (or Richards, himself, who cameos again), is the true image of a Pirate at the heart of this world, so much so that Blackbeard, with all his supernatural fire and brimstone, just comes off as a bad Xerox of Rush's character.

Slightly Recommended for family audiences, people who really liked the previous entries of the franchise, or for action fans who have already seen Thor and Fast Five (I'd even see Fast Five again, and did, before this one). This was not nearly the disaster I had predicted it to be; time will only tell whether it survives the dissipation of its audience by one adventure-fantasy, one sweat-covered male actioner, and a unanimously approved chick flick, all of which are superior films.

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