Review: Disney's 'Pirates of the Caribbean 4' Just a Lame Cash Grab
by Jeremy Kirk
May 20, 2011
When did the Pirates of the Caribbean movies become so convoluted? It was a shock in 2003 when Curse of the Black Pearl came out and wasn't awful. In fact, it was an adventurous, exciting time at the movies that played above and beyond the cash grab idea of Disney turning a theme park ride into a feature film. Then Dead Man's Chest provided the stuffing for that perfectly baked goose. Even still, the balance between grand imagery, exciting battles, and expansive story-telling was in check. It wasn't until At World's End that it all seemed to be out of control. Now, with the fourth and latest film of the franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a decision was made to hold back. At least on the expensive visuals.
But words on a page are cheap. Dialogue, exposition, plot turns, and catty banter is cheap, and it's something On Stranger Tides piles on in droves. In fact, it's so piled on, coupled with a jerky, kitschy, and at times graceless directing style from Rob Marshall, that this latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie looks and feels exactly what the movie-watching world feared Curse of the Black Pearl would be eight years ago. An unabashed cash grab.
The synopsis of the film should be quite simple. Johnny Depp has returned as Captain Jack Sparrow, the often-slurred speech and sun-stroked pirate who is as charming as he is circuitous. This time he's in search of the famed Fountain of Youth, but he's not the only on this quest. The Spanish, the British, even the "pirate all pirates fear" Blackbeard, played here by Ian McShane, are on the trail. See? Simple, right.
Well, leave it to returning screenwriters Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio to complicate these narrative matters about as much as Jack Sparrow complicates any given situation he's in. Deceptions and side-turning abounds in On Stranger Tides to the point where people are fighting with swords, and you really aren't sure why. Maybe it has something to do with pirates always being out for themselves and no one else, but somewhere in the mire of the dialogue and exposition, buried way down underneath the verbal brambles we have to trek through, Elliott and Rossio to think they've gotten across to their audience perfectly.
And maybe much of that can be excused - it certainly was in Dead Man's Chest and At World's End to an extent - if the overall adventure is thrilling, if the action set pieces are worthy of blockbuster filmmaking, and if there's a weight to any of the characters involved. None of these are the case. Instead, we're offered a sword fight here, a chase through the streets of London there, and a mermaid attack to toy with us that something more exciting might be just on the horizon. But none of these moments are allowed to play simply or naturally. There always has to be additional beats thrown in to fluff up the run time. At one point Sparrow is being forced to jump off a cliff, but instead of just jumping or being pushed, we have to sift through banter, then threats, then a lame version of Russian roulette, then more banter, then a Voodoo doll shows up. You just want the guy to friggin' jump!
Of course, much of these action scenes could be commendable from a visceral stand-point if they were well shot. Thank you, Rob Marshall, for not even giving us that. Much of the action is shot in horrendous close-ups, usually in dark areas to make it impossible to differentiate between the characters, and sometimes he even has a tendency of trying to shoot action around foreground objects. An early sword fight between Sparrow and someone impersonating him has more than a few basement beams and wine barrels to completely impede the audience's view. It's like parts of the movie walked off the screen and sat themselves right in front of you in the theater, only you can't move your head to look around them.
Little can be said in Depp's - or anyone else in this movie - favor. It's a phoning in of a performance the likes of which we've yet seen from him, but the good news is he's the main character this time around. There's no Will or Elizabeth to play Luke or Leia to his Han Solo, and a ceaseless Jack Sparrow is one of the last things the Pirates franchise needed.
This time around, though, he has Penelope Cruz to play off. She plays Angelica, a female pirate whose motives might not be altruistic. Hey, she's a pirate. And though the two are given moments here and there with which to build a connection, it never takes hold. They end up coming off like two balls in a pinball machine clanging against one another and making all kinds of unbearable racket as they go.
McShane seems lost playing the one-dimensional Blackbeard, the very epitome of a thinly constructed movie villain. Geoffrey Rush returns as Barbossa, and he's fine here even if Elliott and Rossio appear to have not idea what they were to do with him. There's a budding romance between Sam Claflin's Philip, a priest, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey's Syrena, a mermaid, but the chivalrous nature Philip shows the captured Syrena is forced to say the very least. As soon as he screams at her captors that "SHE HAS A NAME!", you just want to smack someone.
At least a smack would have been something more exciting than what On Stranger Tides has to offer. It's convoluted and tacky, and it has an ongoing tendency to bury the audience's attention with needless narrative outgrowths. A straight-forward pirate adventure full of ship battles - nary a cannon is fired in the entire movie - and melees would have been a much welcomed change of pace for the Pirates franchise. But that's not what we get with On Stranger Tides. We get bland action, frustrating plot points, and the lamest Jack Sparrow we've seen on screen. It's enough to make you thankful you're not a pirate.
Jeremy's Rating: 3 out of 10