As I was sitting in the theater watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie eight years ago, I remember wondering if lawyers were going to be having words, because great whacks of that movie reminded me of Tim Powers's novel, On Stranger Tides, a book for which I have pleasant memories. Apparently, someone at Disney had the same idea, because they sewed up the rights to the novel early on, and after two artistically disastrous but financially lucrative sequels, they've dusted it off and gone back to the fountain, as it were. The newest film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, directed by Rob Marshall) places Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, and Mr. Gibbs into a story that more closely follows Powers's book, though only in so much as it doesn't impinge on the hallmarks of the series.
The goal in this film is the Fountain of Youth, allegedly discovered by Ponce De Leon, and rediscovered by the Spanish. The English want none of that, and dispatch Barbossa as a privateer. Also racing for the fountain is Angelica, a woman from Jack Sparrow's past, who turns out to be the daughter of Edward Teach, Blackbeard himself. Jack, for his part, knows where the fountain is, and what ritual needs to be performed. He bounces between the players. Also along for the ride is captive missionary, Philip Swift, and the mermaid whose tears provide the key to eternal life. Mix well.
In truth, it's pointless to outline the plot of this movie, because the plot exists solely as a framework for the set pieces. I don't think anyone really cares if our heroes find the fountain or prevent the villains from finding it or what not so long as there's action every so often, and the movie obliges this. This is less frenetic that the last two films in the series, both of which I once compared to being trapped in a closet with an ADD-afflicted ten year old on a sugar high, but the one damned thing after another plot remains. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
In truth, I hadn't planned to see this movie. When it was in theaters, the 3-D was enough to keep me away even if I hadn't absolutely detested the previous two movies. I mean, if someone had told me six years ago that you could make a movie in which Chow Yun-Fat and Keith Richards both play pirates, and that that movie would completely suck, I wouldn't have believed it. Preposterous! And yet, that's what happened. So I have a grudge against the PotC movies. My partner, on the other hand, had no such qualms and she bought a copy of On Stranger Tides while I was in Detroit. Our internet has been having periodic outages, too, so during one such last week, I sat down to watch this. I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting another cinematic abortion, and got, instead, a mildly diverting movie that kept me from thinking about the sorry state of the world for two hours. It's not good. I don't want to suggest that it's good. But neither is it particularly bad.
This is a movie that relies almost entirely on its actors and their movie star personae. Both Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush have refined their characters over the previous three movies to the point where you don't need to know anything about where they are or what they're doing to groove on their mere presence in the scene. It's important that both Depp and Rush are back, because the second film demonstrates pretty conclusively that Jack Sparrow really needs Barbossa as a foil. The producers don't make that mistake in this film. Of the new characters, Penelope Cruz has enough movie star charisma to keep up and Ian McShane is a splendid Blackbeard. Throw all these characters into a pot and you're likely to get a tasty stew. Only Sam Claflin as Philip and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as Syrena the Mermaid fail to make an impression. They're the Orlando Bloom/Kiera Knightley characters for this installment, and I decided long ago that Bloom and Knightley were the David Manners/Helen Chandler characters of these movies, if you know what I mean. Or Brad and Janet, if you will.
Rob Marshall stages this without the epic scale of the previous film and that's a tremendous relief. That stuff was exhausting even while it was completely uninvolving. But he also lacks any kind of flare when it comes to staging his action scenes. He keeps things in frame, but that's all he does. One wishes for the Jackie Chan-esque invention of the first film. Marshall is an average talent, and he's asked to "manage" the personalities on screen rather than forge an actual narrative. More than that is too much to ask of him, and we don't get anything more. What interest the film generates comes from the art department. I like the movie's conception of Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. I also like the scene with the mermaids, baited with Blackbeard's mutineers. This scene is creepier than anything in the previous movies and it appeals to my black little heart. Monsters always do. I also like the various cameos: Richard Griffiths is a splendid King George, while Judi Dench gets a few seconds of screen time as a woman who shares a cab with Jack Sparrow. Keith Richards even returns, and gets a better and more mysterious role this time. These are all small pleasures, but the do add up.
In any event, if they want to keep making Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I won't grouse about it. As I say, this was diverting for the two hours I was watching it. I do wish, though, that movie studios would grow some gonads and start creating new material that isn't based on some kind of brand name. I might as well wish for a pony, too, while I'm at it. Alas.