By Scott Martin
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, USA, 2011
In what could be called “Captain Jack and the Last Crusade,” we say goodbye to Will and Elizabeth Turner (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, respectively) and hello to a more expensive look, drearier set pieces, and a more puzzling plot line. However, one benefit of the Pirates films is that no matter how twisted the story may be, and no matter how questionable things may get, everything seems to fall into place. The franchise has always had a firm rooting in faith, spirituality and things seemingly happening for a reason, with the hint of a moral compass always guiding the way, so in that aspect the film gives itself room to take outlandish turns, so long as everything fits. On Stranger Tides is certainly no exception to this rule, but At World’s End (2007) had that market cornered.
I have to say, and I know I’m one of the few, but I missed seeing Bloom and Knightley side by side with Johnny Depp. I always took them to be the crux of the trilogy, especially because their stories were the forefront: them meeting, discovering more about their pasts, getting married, having a baby, etc., all while Captain Jack Sparrow gets himself in one scrape and out of another. But, inevitably, their story drew to an end in At World’s End, giving this film more of a chance to focus on Sparrow’s past – lost love, old friendships, all that. As the film opens, Captain Jack (Depp, as savvy as ever) impersonates a British judge to escape hanging for crimes he may or may not have committed, though he probably did; he’s just not ready to hang for them. The opening of the film tells us this: Jack is in London looking for a ship and a crew. This is true, but not in the sense that everyone thinks it is; in fact, it’s an impostor posing as Jack. Her name is Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and she’s the only one with enough guts to impersonate the infamous captain and get away with it. She’s an old love, or as close as Jack has gotten to it. Meanwhile, Jack is looking for the Fountain of Youth. The catch is, so is the Spanish kingdom, the British Navy, helmed by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, back from the first film and looking barely alive), and Blackbeard (the performance of the film, from Ian McShane), along with his daughter, Angelica. Spoiler? Not really.
The franchise, regardless of how fun it is, is tired. It’s been tired since 2003 when we discovered The Curse of the Black Pearl. There shouldn’t have been a second film, or a third one, and I like to think that everyone recognizes the lack of a need for a trilogy, but Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End managed to give us a story that feeds off of the first one and into the third one, kind of forcing a trilogy on us. On Stranger Tides feels like it’s the final part, but Disney can keep threatening a fifth installment. With the financial success of the films so far, it’d be a fool’s bet to say they wouldn’t do it. It’ll be big, it’ll be loud, it’ll be expensive, Depp will be loads of fun, the story won’t make much sense for most of the film, and there will be millions of bags of popcorn sold all over the country. Sounds about right.
Something that’s bothered me since Dead Man’s Chest is the incomprehensible editing. Other than story-depth, that’s what has seemed to take the biggest dip in quality. Remember the quality of the sword fights in The Curse of the Black Pearl? Or how exciting it was watching Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport swash-buckle on a giant rolling wheel? Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but that scene was brilliantly composed, even if lacking in the logic department. One thing that makes or breaks action movies is the editing. Pirates had that, then it lost it, never to get it back. At least the quality of the cinematography, music and art direction seems to only be improving. The music here, composed by Hans Zimmer, has as much life as it ever has, and it’s put to staggeringly good use, considering this is a Rob Marshall film.
A note about Rob Marshall: he’s possibly one of the most hit-or-miss directors alive. He made a masterpiece with Chicago (2002), but Nine (2009) was a miserable mess, and for anyone who has seen his TV version of Annie (1999), well … I’m sorry. Here, though, I’d venture to say he’s back on the right track. This isn’t the best of the Pirates films, nowhere close, but he has managed a minor success in his filmography. If there is a fifth film, and they can’t convince Gore Verbinski to come back and do it right, then I hope they bring Rob Marshall along for the ride again. He kept the film lively and bouncy, and the final joke in the film, a small delivery between Jack and Angelica, had me laughing for a good five or six minutes. A perfectly produced moment.
The performances are the bright spot. Depp has made a wonderful character out of Jack Sparrow. He has never once made fun of the character; he believes Sparrow with every ounce of his considerable talent and keeps him from being a repetitive mess. His swagger doesn’t ever feel forced, and hasn’t for four movies now. It’s no wonder his first outing as the captain garnered him his first Oscar nomination. Geoffrey Rush is obviously having fun as Captain Barbossa, and Penelope Cruz continues to be one of the most compulsively watchable actresses alive. Her alarming beauty and quick comedic timing are put to extremely good use; Marshall knows how to direct her. The best performance in the film, however, comes from Ian McShane as Edward Teach (Blackbeard, as we’ve come to fear him); he’s slimy, contemptible, but fun – the ideal Disney villain.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com