Has Jack Sparrow met his match? He’s in London, facing piracy charges, has no crew, no ship and – seemingly – no hope. But, of course, keeping Jack behind bars wouldn’t make for much of a film and so, following a beautifully-choreographed escape through the streets of London, a scene-stealing cameo from Keith Richards as Jack’s worldly-wise father and reunion with feisty former love Angelica (Penelope Cruz), Jack is soon ensconced on the ship of the legendary Blackbeard (Ian McShane), on the hunt for the fabled Fountain of Youth. On his tail is pirate nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) but, as the journey gets increasingly dangerous, the old foes may find that they need to work together if they are to make it home alive…
Although it’s been four years after Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – and almost a decade since the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl turned a theme park ride into a successful movie franchise – it’s like Captain Jack Sparrow has never been away. So familiar is Johnny Depp’s outlandish performance, and so seamlessly does director Rob Marshall take the reigns from Gore Verbinski, that this newest instalment fits comfortably alongside its predecessors.
So comfortably, in fact, that – just as the first three were all variations on a theme – this is again essentially the same film told differently. Luckily, it’s still just about entertaining enough to hold appeal thanks, largely, to Depp’s performance. He is still a joy as Sparrow, and so utterly at home playing these outlandish characters – think Sweeney Todd, Willy Wonka et al – that it’s now something of a shock to see him in more straightforward roles, such as in the recent flop The Tourist. Depp commands the film, and the franchise, and keeps the momentum going.
That’s not to say he’s the only good performer on screen; McShane is well-cast as the malevolent Blackbeard, his understated style ensuring the character stays well clear of pantomime villain territory, while Rush is solid as Barbossa and Cruz looks like she’s having a blast as Angelina. Former stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are certainly not missed.
Where it becomes clear that this was more an exercise in money-grabbing than coherent filmmaking comes with the storyline. Despite some raucous set-pieces and sense of old-fashioned adventure that runs through the narrative, it’s all a bit tired. There is no sense of urgency built into this quest, and some of the characters are so underdeveloped as to be nothing more than cardboard cutouts; there’s a particular storyline involving a mermaid and a preacher which ends with frustrating abruptness.
And all these shortcomings do throw up a huge question of purpose; if a film brings nothing new to audiences why bother making it at all. The answer is, of course, that it’s still a reliable slice of summer cinema and brings a guaranteed treasure chest of box office gold to Disney’s coffers. But while On Stranger Tides just about hangs on to its sense of fun, it’s doubtful that further instalments will fair as well. Let’s just hope the producers see sense, and let this franchise sail off into the sunset.
UK Release Date: May 18, 2011