Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
The Charlotte Observer
There's a sequence in the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie where Captain Jack Sparrow punctures a huge sack full of whale oil, sets fire to a lighthouse tower, leaps from the top just before a fireball explodes, then swims to safety in full buccaneer regalia. "Did everyone see that?" he inquires. "Because I will not be doing it again."
But he will. If Johnny Depp made this bloated, disjointed narrative about the Fountain of Youth, he'll make sequels in which Jack searches for El Dorado, Atlantis, Hoboken, N.J., and every other water-lapped locale on Earth.
This installment, which is subtitled "Give Us Your Money, Sheep," really isn't a Pirates of the Caribbean movie at all. It takes place in an undefined sea. Except for Keith Richards' few lines as Sparrow's dad, only first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally in a useless role) and old rival Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) join Jack in making the transition from the previous films. (Wait a moment, I've noticed a typo in that subtitle. It's actually "On Stranger Tides.")
The script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio literally never begins to make sense. After a clumsy courtroom scene in which Sparrow impersonates a judge, King George orders him to find the Fountain of Youth sought by Ponce de León. The now-legitimate Barbossa will lead the expedition.
Meanwhile, someone impersonating Sparrow across town has been collecting sailors for a similar voyage. She turns out to be Penélope Cruz - yes, you read that right - and is a would-be nun who chose not to take vows after Sparrow seduced her years ago in Spain. She's also the illegitimate daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who wants to cruise to the fountain himself.
He knows how to turn sailors into zombie slaves, makes his ship sail under the spell of his magic sword and imprisons other vessels - Sparrow's Black Pearl included - by shrinking them until they fit in bottles, with crews aboard. (No money has been spared on special effects, which are well up to the industry's current standard. If you like 3-D movies where someone sticks a sword in your face every so often, this will be for you, though I missed the ghost pirates from the first one.)
But enough about the plot, eh?
The writers and director Rob Marshall don't connect plot points or make us care about the characters or even take us carefully from any episode to the next. They simply introduce one fantastic element after another - a drowned sailor who comes back to life, cannibalistic mermaids, voodoo dolls - to distract us from the clumsiness of the story.
Even in fantasy, some rules of logic must apply. We learn Ponce de León apparently did discover the fountain, knew the ritual needed to make it work, left a map with directions to it but never used it; his desiccated corpse sits in bed in his wrecked vessel nearby. (Say what?) Meanwhile, the Spanish government - which sent him to find it in the first place - now wants to destroy it because it's blasphemous to extend life against God's will!
The whole film has a muddled religious tone, set by a shipwrecked evangelist (Sam Claflin) whom Blackbeard keeps around for no reason. He chatters about forgiveness and wants to save the soul of a mermaid who falls in love with him, but this subplot seems as arbitrarily inserted as every other.
Nor do the attempts at humor come off. The winking naughtiness and spoofy jokes that were so fresh in "Black Pearl" became flabby in the first two sequels, and they've gone totally flaccid here.
The saddest thing of all is that nobody on the set appears to have had much fun. McShane has some sinister charisma, and Rush tries to squint and snarl with conviction, but Cruz barely seems present: Anger and lust and contempt are all conveyed by the same daintily wrinkled brow.
Depp sleepwalks through action sequences and relies on mannerisms during the dialogue. Perhaps he's saving himself for a string of sequels that will stretch monotonously into eternity, like telephone poles in a vast landscape where nothing can grow.