The good news is that Johnny Depp manages to not come across as a “ho” here (for the most part), as his gleefully deranged punk rock pirate still has a few tricks up his sleeve in this fourth (whew!) installment of Disney’s booty-generating franchise, which chronicles the search for the Fountain of Youth. We’ll never get back that giddy feeling we had back when we first met Captain Jack in 2003 with The Curse of the Black Pearl but there’s something comforting about just having him around. Jack Sparrow is pretty much always welcome, and he’s the main attraction of On Stranger Tides (even with so much sound and fury trying to upstage him).
More good news: director Rob Marshall, while he doesn’t quite have the knack for pacing that Gore Verbinski brought to at least the first Pirates movie, is an expert choreographer (he didn’t direct Chicago and Nine because of his good looks, ya know). On Stranger Tides is a surrealist pop circus of hanging from ropes, swinging from chandeliers, leaping from waterfalls and catapulting from coconut trees (yep). Depp’s in fighting shape here, and he gets quite the strenuous physical workout (or at least his stuntman does). Marshall has also managed to deliver the Pirates movie with the shortest running time — at 137 minutes, it’s a lean-ish adventure compared to the near-torturous 170 minutes of the bloated third installment, At World’s End.
What else is good about On Stranger Tides? Penelope Cruz is hot and fun as a former flame of Jack’s (and quite possibly Blackbeard’s daughter). Oh, yeah, Blackbeard — Ian McShane doesn’t quite fill the void left by Bill Nighy’s tragic (and eye-popping) Davy Jones, but he’s in full Al Swearengen mode here, times ten: a swaggering, boisterous villain with an impressively seedy ship. Sam Claflin as missionary Philip and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as a hottie mermaid manage to be even more inconsequential than Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were by the third movie, but they’re harmless and easy on the eyes enough. Geoffrey Rush cashes his check and hams it up as Barbossa, drinking rum from his wooden leg and growling things like “Are we not King’s Men?” to his crew (in fact, if there’s been an actor in all of the Pirates movies that comes across as the most pirate-ish, it’s Rush). There’s also a neat mermaid attack that’s actually pretty scary, and the climactic hootenanny at the Fountain of Youth isn’t quite pure Disney magic, but it sometimes comes close.
Sounds not too shabby, right? It isn’t, really. Really the only thing “wrong” with On Stranger Tides is that it’s the fourth trip to the well… the well’s not exactly dry, but it’s definitely not as full (or tasty) as it used to be. Ultimately, everything seems so meticulously manufactured and constructed without any of the anarchic spirit of the original film (and the second one, Dead Man’s Chest, part of the time, anyway). It delivers the goods, more or less, because at this point it’s programmed to.
But the program works, at least as much as it needs to. While the plot is predictably incoherent and nonsensical (as was the case with At World’s End), the various big, loud and blustery set pieces, nifty creature effects (there are zombies in this too!) and the nimble antics of Captain Jack make On Stranger Tides an enjoyable voyage, even if it won’t quite shiver your timbers. Avast!