Remember 2003? Back then, a movie about pirates was a risky endeavor. The pirate genre had been all but dead for decades, and Disney wasn't exactly having bona fide success with adaptations of its theme park rides (remember The Country Bears?). So here they were throwing tons of money at Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that seemed like a sinking proposition, and suddenly, it's a massive, runaway success, scoring north of $300 million domestically and improbably earning Johnny Depp the first Oscar nomination of his career for playing the swaggering, perpetually drunk Captain Jack Sparrow (more on him in a bit). What is Disney to do? Well, make sequels of course! So they delivered two underwhelming, bloated entries that failed to capture the magic of the first one, and where they failed creatively they succeeded financially, ensuring that the company lost no money in the endeavor.
On Stranger Tides is the fourth film in the series, and though it's ostensibly unnecessary, it does come the closest of any of the sequels to the original but still lands a far distance away from it. The film, which borrows elements from Tim Powers' novel of the same name, brings Captain Jack (Depp) to the forefront. The Spanish are setting off to find the Fountain of Youth, which Jack has been searching for for years. The British, too, are hoping to find the Fountain, and with Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, who looks remarkably aged here) having thrown his lot in with them (and having a particularly awesome peg leg), set sail to beat the Spanish there. But Jack, after an escape from prison, ends up conscripted aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge, captained by none other than Blackbeard (a delightfully scenery-chewing Ian McShane) himself and his maybe-daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), whom Jack has had prior romance with before. Along the way there's zombies, mermaids, and a missionary (Sam Claflin) who serves as this installment's Orlando Bloom.
Much to the film's favor, this is very much a stand-alone story, unlike the previous sequels. Success turned out to be the downfall of this series; though the ending of Curse of the Black Pearl is left open for sequels, its clear that the filmmakers didn't actually think there would be any. And when the time came to start preparing parts two and three, writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio decided to take elements of the first film and turn them into a complicated mythology that was both undercooked and baffling. It was probably a good idea at the time, but on film it took a lot of the fun out of the series. Luckily this film casts aside a lot of that mythology in favor of adventure, and there's plenty of fun sequences here. However, the usual double-and-triple-crossings and changes of allegiances prove to get a tad much here, as one side in the story turns out to be completely unnecessary, a contrived plot device. That goes for the missionary as well, whom the audience is obviously supposed to care about but with no reasons given other than he's handsome. His murky romance is included only because someone felt it was necessary since Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom opted not to return for this installment. But Rob Marshall does a fine job taking over for Gore Verbinski in the director's chair, though he lacks the seafaring sensibilities the latter brought to the first three films.
What hurts On Stranger Tides the most, though, is unfortunately Captain Jack himself. In Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack was a completely original, exciting, and incredible character (in career full of great performances, this is far and away Depp's best). He was true pirate: an opportunist who was willing to join whichever side was winning for as long as he needed to in order to get what he needed with a moral compass that worked about as well as his actual compass. He was a clown, sure, but he was a clown with a dark edge, someone who wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty if the situation called for it. He was funny, sure, but he was dangerous as well. With each sequel, that menace was softened into incompetence, and Jack became more and more of a swaggering oaf who stood on the side of the action and laughed at it. Here, front and center, he's become something the first film's Jack never would have dreamed of being: the hero, complete with romantic feelings that extend beyond flirtatious lust and something of a sense of decency. There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but its not the Jack Sparrow we've come to know over the course of the series, and a far cry from the Jack that first astonished audiences. Less was more in the first three films, and now that he's front-and-center, in almost every scene, there's just too much Jack. (This is not to say that Depp doesn't entertain; he's delightfully goofy, but never seems completely invested in the film).
If there is a standout performance to be celebrated here, it's McShane's menacing turn as Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. McShane's clearly having a ball here, and he throws himself completely into the role, putting his full dramatic weight into every line and sneer. He's easily the most ruthless villain the series has had yet, a merciless captain with control of the supernatural. It's the closest we'll ever see to a Disneyfied Al Swearengen.
Overall, On Stranger Tides isn't a bad movie, but it doesn't live up to its expectations. It's plenty of fun, but don't expect the rush to last. B
*I'm implementing a rating system for my movie reviews now, the same way I grade songs in my Radio Daze posts. The highest possible grade is an A+, the lowest F (or F- if I'm feeling particularly spiteful). Let me know what you think.*