June 2, 2011


Just Jack!
Johnny Depp's appearance as Jack Sparrow (Captain) in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is one of the greatest, most succinct character introductions in modern film. He rides into port on a sinking ship, perched perfectly in the crossbeams and elevates an otherwise reasonably straight ahead pirate ghost adventure film to something special. Orlando Bloom’s Will and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth are our nominal heroes but Depp’s Captain Jack saunters in and makes off with the whole film, grinning as he does so. He’s a fantastic character, and the film is a lot more fun because of him; The Curse of the Black Pearl is an exceptionally well made blockbuster film.

It’s a shame then, that no Pirates sequel has been able to capture what made the first film so magical. The first two sequels became over-stuffed with new and returning characters and needlessly overcomplicated plots and mythology. There were reversals, betrayals and counter-betrayals nearly every minute, losing the audience’s compassion for any character whatsoever. With the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, a new director in the shape of Chicago’s Rob Marshall came aboard and the attempt was made to strip the film back: shorten the run-time and simplify the plot mechanics. Now it’s like they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction, stripping out any sense of fun or craft.

The plot involves some guff about the Fountain of Youth. Captain Jack arrives in London, having heard about someone impersonating him to procure a crew. The impersonator turns out to be an old flame, Penelope Cruz’s Angelica, who also happens to be the long lost daughter of the much feared and legendary pirate Blackbeard. Blackbeard has heard of a prophecy regarding his death, which is why he’s heading to the Fountain. And Barbossa is back, this time as a privateer under the auspices of King George. Barbossa is out for revenge on Blackbeard and the English are looking to beat the Spanish, so that’s why he’s heading to the Fountain. The only one with no real motivation to be going to the Fountain… is Jack. Oh, and the Spanish are there for some reason but they barely book-end events and seem to be (yet another) random element thrown in to the mix (they serve, quite literally, absolutely no purpose to the film. None).

Placing Captain Jack Sparrow front-and-centre seems like the obvious decision to make; a recurring criticism of the last two films was that Orlando and Keira should have been jettisoned after the first. This makes him no longer a character commenting on the action from the sidelines but neither does the action of the film revolve around him. Oh, they make a game attempt to pretend like it does but Captain Jack is such a passive protagonist here. He now has no clear motivation and is brought along by others for the ride. Ian McShane does his level, glowery, stompy best as Blackbeard and manages to bring the menace in every scene and he and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa actually have some great enmity between them. But the Orlando and Keira replacements are such blank non-entities I’m struggling to even remember their names. They’re both introduced late into the piece, rather than having things revolve around them and their love-story, and Depp keeps his distance from both of them.

I guess with On Stranger Tides I just couldn’t muster up too much enthusiasm. The last two sequels have their supporters, and I’ll admit they have some fun set-pieces in them, but I’m no fan. Coupled with the fact that all advance word I had heard about Tides was, well, not that great my expectations were suitably lowered.  It just seems that screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are still scrambling to find out why the first film worked so well and just throwing everything in with no real thought (I, for one, hope they're jettisoned from any follow-up films. Their writing here is pretty lazy and terrible). Having said that, I didn’t find it to be complete rubbish, with everything chugging along at a decent enough pace and certainly not being a blockbuster crime of the Transformers 2 level. I think Johnny Depp still enjoys playing the character of Captain Jack Sparrow, but they just need to give some motivation next time. As for this stranger tide? It all just washed over me leaving no discernable imprint.

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