By Amy Nicholson
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After sinking into self-important tedium with its prior two overstuffed installments, Pirates of the Caribbean seemed destined for permanent burial at sea. And yet the soggy franchise and Johnny Depp's foppish rapscallion return again for On Stranger Tides — to search for the fountain of youth, no less, a quest that Chicago director Rob Marshall (taking the helm from Gore Verbinski) embellishes with the usual gaggle of musty ships-and-sabers tropes and cacophonous CGI.
Capt. Jack Sparrow's limb-flailing shenanigans had already become old-hat during his past outings, so Depp's routine — the look-at-me flamboyance of his trinket-decorated braided hair, flowing scarves, and giant rings as well as his half-drunken flouncing, lisping, and pratfalling — is no longer a surprise but rather a dreary expectation fulfilled. More astonishing, however, is that even though it does away with its preceding trilogy's plot-heavy mythology for a supposedly more streamlined stand-alone story, the ensuing tale — in which Jack reluctantly teams with his former flame, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), and her iconic baddie daddy, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), to reach the legendary fountain before English king-employed Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) — is a familiar mess of rules, rituals, creatures, and chandelier-swinging, sword-clashing pandemonium.
No knowledge of the first three Pirates films is required for this fourth go-around, a merciful development given how severely forgettable the previous convoluted machinations were. More merciful still is that Dull (Keira Knightley) and Duller (Orlando Bloom) have also been jettisoned, their milquetoast fashion-model-pretty amour here replaced by Jack's spirited love/hate passions for Angelica, a feisty Spanish sexpot whose heart the pirate broke years earlier. The couple's initial reunion involves Angelica posing as Jack, thereby positing her as his equal while reestablishing Jack's trademark self-love, a trait Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's screenplay attempts to complicate by having the gold-toothed scoundrel eventually confess to having actual "feelings" for Angelica.
Regardless, On Stranger Tides merely feigns at delivering a more mushy-hearted Jack, all while establishing a narrative goal for its hero and then erecting constant intricate impediments designed to maintain a mood of head-spinning business. Instead of fleshing out Jack's personal hunger for ceaseless longevity, we get rescues from prison, foolhardy mutinies, redemption-preaching missionaries, and carnivorous mermaids. The plot feels strained in both its tense, romantic repartee and in its rollicking centerpieces, as Marshall shoots Jack and Angelica's maiden duel with invigorating clarity and rhythm before succumbing to his typical edited-to-ribbons incoherence.
As befitting a saga about ne'er-do-wells engaged in supernatural adventure, On Stranger Tides depicts pious zealots as killjoys, but it's Jack who turns out to be the real downer. Although Depp seems to have rediscovered a bit of the original spark that was MIA in Dead Man's Chest and At World's End and the script provides plentiful opportunities for him to devour scenery, his Jack remains a once-inspired creation now far less funny than he fancies himself, and consequently, Marshall's film often plays like a series of setups for Sparrowcentric payoffs that never materialize. Still, at least Depp is given something to do. McShane, on the other hand, is relegated to exuding evil mainly via his long scraggly beard, and Rush is stuck for the first two-thirds at a remove from the action proper, blaring "Yar!" and "Aye, aye!" as he pursues Jack on a ship full of British stiffs.
As the seductive and conniving Angelica, Cruz is luminous, albeit not enough to compensate for Marshall's shrouding virtually every major set piece in nighttime fogginess. Further sabotaged by light-dimming 3-D, the visual murkiness comes off as a blatant attempt to mask the shoddiness of the special effects and the unoriginality of the combat choreography and ultimately proves directly at odds with a story driven by its characters' desire to escape death's everlasting darkness. Jack will no doubt live to prance another day, but from Depp's fey bon mots to a cameoing Keith Richards' scraggly visage, his swashbuckling series is showing its age.
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