BY KURT LODER – In trying to work out what went wrong with the making of this movie—which is pretty much everything—I think we can begin at a point before the making even got underway. The Pirates of the Caribbean series was once conceived as a trilogy. The first picture was a great comic swashbuckler; the second was good in parts; the third was a dire mess. The Wachowski Brothers, whose three Matrix films followed a similar downward spiral, knew when to call it quits. The Pirates producers, however—mindful of the nearly $3 billion the first three pictures pulled in worldwide—saw no reason to follow suit. And so now we have On Stranger Tides, a movie for which the term “dire mess” seems entirely insufficient.
The first sign of trouble is the script. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who worked on all three previous films, were apparently short of new ideas this time out, and so found it necessary to borrow some from a 1987 pirate-fantasy novel called On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers. Then there’s the cast. Since On Stranger Tides is essentially a reboot, several of the series’ more amusing characters—like the comical swabbies Pintel and Ragetti and the squid-faced Davy Jones—have been eliminated. So has original director Gore Verbinski, now replaced, bafflingly, by Rob Marshall, best-known for helming the musical Chicago. New recruits include a school of oddly vampire-fanged mermaids, an uninteresting captive missionary, a contingent of haughty Spaniards, a clutch of zombie sailors, and an irrelevant voodoo doll. We’ll get to the rote 3D in which the picture was shot in a moment.
Fortunately (you’d think) Geoffrey Rush is still onboard as the mock-menacing pirate Barbossa; and so, of course, is Johnny Depp as the irreplaceable Captain Jack Sparrow. (Depp was reportedly paid $55 million for his continued participation in the franchise.) This time around, Captain Jack is on a mission to find the Fountain of Youth. So is his old nemesis Barbossa—no longer a freelance pirate here, but a one-legged privateer in the service of the British King George. The lively back-and-forth between these two characters was a highlight of the previous movies; since this one has maybe three good lines (the best of them delivered by Keith Richards, returning as Jack’s old dad), that once-reliable zing is gone. And Rush, now hobbled with a peg leg, has been directed to overact so flamboyantly that his performance seems more than anything a tribute to the late, great hambone Robert Newton and his immortal Long John Silver.
Especially in the beginning, the picture is very talky, which is unsurprising—there’s an awful lot to talk about. Jack finds himself pressed into the crew of the famed pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, lamentably underacting). Blackbeard is desperate to find the Fountain of Youth because of a prophecy that has foretold his death at the hands of a one-legged man (hmm). Exactly how youth-restorative waters would be of any use in deflecting a sword through the heart, or whatever, is hard to say, so the writers wisely don’t say it. Also onboard Blackbeard’s ship is Jack’s long-ago lover Angelica (Penélope Cruz), who may—or may not, not that it matters—be Blackbeard’s daughter. The sight of two such appealing actors as Depp and Cruz failing to work up any sort of romantic chemistry is one of the movie’s most curious disappointments.
A mermaid attack on the Blackbeard party introduces a pretty water nymph named Syrena (played by Spanish actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey with all the esprit of a beached fish). Syrena’s appearance is fortuitous, since a mermaid’s tear is for some reason crucial to utilization of the Fountain of Youth. To put her in a crying mood, Blackbeard says, “I will tear every scale from her body one by one.” This might have been interesting, but the threat of it doesn’t do the trick. Syrena’s tear is eventually secured, however, and then it’s off to find two magical chalices that also play a murky part in the Fountain quest, and to beat Barbossa to the prize.
Along with its overabundance of talk, the movie is burdened with altogether too much walking and climbing and general slogging around through watery jungle. There’s also an excess of sword-fighting, none of it staged with the wit of, say, the battle in the blacksmith shop in the first Pirates film. And so what with Marshall’s mincemeat editing and the shifting visual planes of the 3D process—which is in any case employed in the most formulaic ways—these chaotic melees quickly grow monotonous.
The picture’s most melancholy defect, though, is Captain Jack himself. Depp’s inspired conception of this eccentric character, with his kohl-shadowed eyes and swanning deportment, was once the series’ central delight. Here, though, the actor has run out of new places to go with it, and his dutiful reiteration of all the familiar gestures and reactions is a dispiriting thing to witness. Like this overworked franchise itself, the Captain has been squeezed dry of the fun he once provided. And yet a fifth Pirates movie is already in the works, and a sixth is also threatened. A sinking sensation is hard to dispel.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin’s Press.