By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Avast, ye mateys!
The formula for Pirates of the Caribbean‘s fourth go-round:
1) Replace director Gore Verbinski with Rob Marshall.
2) Subtract Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and add Penelope Cruz.
3) And, in the only commercial move that really matters, bring back Johnny Depp as his popular, self-mocking, flamboyant signature character, the Oscar-nominated role that made him a superstar, Captain Jack Sparrow.
The result: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is easily the best (and is also, by the way, the shortest, even though it’s over two hours) of the quartet of high-seas adventures. While the series continues to owe Johnny a depp of gratitude, this outing is less dependent on his particular campy charm.
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, inspired (if that’s the word) by a theme park ride, was launched in 2003 with the first tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler, subtitled The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was energetic but shapeless, another plot chasing its own tale, as was the 2006 followup, subtitled Dead Man’s Chest.
Ditto for the second sequel, another bloated and bombastic but essentially empty spectacle, released in 2007, subtitled At World’s End. All three were silly, shallow, strained, and synthetic.
At this point, with the ship having sailed and the welcome having been well worn out, the buccaneer got passed to Rob Marshall. And although he has not exactly reinvented the wheel, to say nothing of the gangplank and the poop deck, what he has done is not only restore order to the franchise but start it off in a promising new direction.
Cruz plays the enigmatic and vivacious Angelica, who claims to be the daughter of the legendary Blackbeard, played as the embodiment of evil and cunning by Ian McShane.
Angelica, a dedicated con artist, has a complicated romantic history with Sparrow, who rejected and betrayed her, and thus she has revenge on her mind.
So, with Jack in search of the fabled fountain of youth (as are virtually all the principal characters and who can blame them?), she forces him aboard Blackbeard’s ship, the appropriately named Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Geoffrey Rush returns — one leg now wooden, but never his acting — as the vengeful Captain Hector Barbossa, Sparrow’s nemesis, who has been hired by King George to find the elusive fountain. As does the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards in another cameo as Sparrow’s pirate father.
And Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey are along as missionary and mermaid, respectively, to add the secondary romantic element that disappeared along with Bloom and Knightley.
Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine) maintains the large scale but, calling on his background staging musicals, brings a lighter touch to the proceedings, adding bounce and flow to choreographed action sequences that play like energetic production numbers in a musical.
And he goes easy on the special-effects pyrotechnics, using them adeptly — most notably with the film’s interesting take on (murderous) mermaids — but not to such a degree that they steal the focus from the performers.
That’s part of the reason why the principals — Depp, Cruz, Rush, and McShane — all get to shine instead of getting lost in all the pageantry and mayhem, as happened far too often in the first three chapters.
The screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, returning for their fourth Pirates of the Caribbean collaboration, is less convoluted than the previous sequels, with more concentration on seafaring and less on the kind of supernatural nonsense that dominated the middle installments. This story is closer in spirit to the original and is actually their most effective screenplay yet — it’s less busy, frizzy, and dizzy than any of the predecessors.
So we’ll shiver me timbers with 2½ stars out of 4 for the escapist action-adventure sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The fountain of youth may remain elusive, but consider the franchise rejuvenated.