Friday, May 20, 2011

Yo Ho, Yo Ho....Yawn

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides avoids the excesses of the last two movies, but also sucks the life out of the franchise.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and
Angelica (Penelope Cruz) search for the
Fountain of Youth.
By their own admissions, both Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski were confused by the numerous plot twists in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films. Depp explained to Entetainment Weekly that he told Verbinski on several occasions, "I don't really know what this means," to which Verbinski would reply, "Neither do I, but let's just shoot it." This resulted in two movies that, although entertaining, had needlessly over-the-top visuals and horribly convoluted plots. Their sole purpose was to keep hurtling forward, even if they had no idea where they were going.

Breaking free of the wretched excess of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides focuses more on characters, cutting down on the subplots and special effects. It's the right idea, but director Rob Marshall and screen writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio take it way too far, removing most of the excitement audiences demand from a Pirates flick. On Stranger Tides is a snore.

Oh sure, there are plenty of sword fights, chases and explosions as Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) goes in search of the Fountain of Youth, encountering his old flame (Penelope Cruz) and the vicious pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) along the way. The problem is there's never any real sense of peril to the action, never a moment when we think, "Wow, how's Jack going to get out of this one?" The movie just plods along from mild cliffhanger to mild cliffhanger with Jack effortlessly extricating himself every step of the way. It wants to be Pirates of the Lost Ark (complete with a scrappy ex-girlfriend and religious subtext), but it doesn't have the energy or heart to pull it off.

Ian McShane's Blackbeard is a bad man.
Which is an even bigger shame because the performances are pretty good. By now we've become very familiar with Johnny Depp's twitchy pirate captain, but in On Stranger Tides, he doesn't use the flamboyant gestures as a crutch like he did in Dead Man's Chest. Here, they're more subtle, the basic extension of a character Depp's become very comfortable with. Also effectively dialing it down a bit is Geoffrey Rush as Sparrow's longtime frenemy Barbossa, who's now sold his services as a privateer to the British navy and may have his own score to settle with Blackbeard. Rush has always channeled Robert Newton in his portrayals in the past, but this time he keeps the "ARRRGGHH's" to a minimum, making Barbossa less campy.

Cruz is smart and sexy as Capt Jack's former conquest Angelica. Even better is McShane, dark and menacing as Blackbeard, a "bad man" who will kill for sport and sacrifice others for his own self-interest.

If only they weren't all scuttled by Marshall's controlled, lazy direction and a tired storyline. Say what you will about Verbinski's bombastic approach to the first three Pirates movies. At least they were never boring.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush)

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