It was four years ago that we last saw Jack Sparrow drunkenly stagger about on a theater screen, and after a one-two punch of crammed-to-capacity sequels to the beloved original swashbuckler, I think most were ready for that to be the last time. Depending on who you talk to, opinions of the Pirates of the Caribbean films seem to sweep and flop around like a ship’s sail amidst a hurricane. While most agree that the first film is at least good, many appreciate it as something great or even classic (I count myself among them). A person’s thoughts on the sequels can take the form of any number of configurations of outright hatred and guarded enjoyment for one or both of the films, and in any order. But for all the dynamic range of the consensus, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that felt like the sequels as a whole actually lived up to the first film, much less improved on them.
Here we are four years later and On Stranger Tides has arrived. A fourth film with a mostly new cast, new director, and a new third dimension, it arrives surrounded by skepticism at best, outright hostility if you’re less kind. Was anyone asking for this? Does any of the returning cast or crew care anymore?
Well, once again, I think few would claim that On Stranger Tides lives up to Curse of the Black Pearl, and yet it seems to be plagued by an entirely different set of problems than those that dragged down Pirates 2 and 3. But is this simply a new form of bad, or have the filmmakers actually learned anything from the mistakes of the past? That’s what Nick, Josh and I will be looking to answer in this tag-team review of Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Josh: I second your love of the original film. It is great. Though, love it or hate it, it is a modern Hollywood classic nonetheless. People will still be watching and digging Curse of the Black Pearl in 30 years, the same way people are still watching and digging the original Indiana Jones films or Back to the Future now. It’s got that perfect combination of movie standards everyone wants to see in a big popcorn flick, but with some novel twists to kick it above the rabble and make it feel unique. One of those things was of course Johnny Depp’s endearingly unorthodox portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. And through the messy sequels Depp remained the safe harbor quality. My own feelings on the sequels were: Dead Man’s Chest was decent fun (I’ve gone on the record before with my love of giant monsters), and At World’s End was a bloated disaster. Yet, one of my favorite moments in the entire trilogy is trapped amongst the waste of the third film, and that’s Captain Jack’s surreal adventure in the underworld. Once more, Depp was seemingly untouchable, disconnected from the quality of the larger film. Which is why I am completely shocked that Johnny Depp and Captain Jack Sparrow are my biggest disappoint in On Stranger Tides.
Broadly speaking, the film is fine. Certainly not great, but also certainly not a Transformers 2 shitshow. As an installment in the franchise it has its merits — it contains some interesting ideas and builds on the world’s mythology, while providing the sword fights, supernatural elements, and callbacks to the previous films that Pirates fans will be looking for. While I wasn’t always engaged in the film, I also wasn’t ever really bored either. That said, the movie just doesn’t feel right. Nor does it have much of a reason to be, even in the context of its own story.
I think the reason it “didn’t feel right” to me was because I didn’t like Captain Jack anymore. I couldn’t quite put my finger on whether or not I felt that Depp’s performance was finally sagging in the enthusiasm department, or if I’d simply tired of the schtick. Since I have a lot of respect for Depp as a professional, I have to assume it is the latter. It seems that I’ve seen all of Captain Jack’s quirks and tricks too many times. The performance that once dazzled me with its unfamiliar notes is now too familiar to impress or entertain anymore, and has frankly started to become a little annoying — just like Jack Black in real life. This fundamental problem then undermined the entire film for me, because I just didn’t care about Jack’s journey. Instead of wanting more Jack, I wanted less. So that left me with only the plot, which had a whole set of its own problems.
Nick: I don’t exactly dislike Depp in the role at this stage but it is a mistake making him the protagonist. There’s no mystery to the character anymore. That said, I certainly didn’t want Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom back either. Sparrow is boring. That’s unbelievable considering that the character singlehandledly reinvented Johnny Depp. Jack’s a tour guide on a journey that’s on rails but when you think about it that’s the story of the genre entire. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark is a pulpy formula flick told really well. So was Black Pearl. This is the same idea but a little smaller and less intent on blowing the viewer’s eyes off with visual effects. I remember so few elements from the last two films that I can’t even name a gag or moment that sticks out. There’s nothing warm in those films, nothing that even comes close to Jack riding the crow’s nest into harbor as his boat sinks in part one. The charisma has been replaced by obligation. But this film is fine, especially since it’s a lot less noisy and overpopulated like the previous two.
Renn: Perhaps I’m projecting, or perhaps whatever Depp was trying to do just hit on a frequency I happened to be picking up, but I enjoyed Jack Sparrow more in this installment than I did in any movie since the first. When the sequels weren’t too busy making him absent for long stretches of time or creating circumstantial barriers between him and the audience, I felt Depp was treading too far into clown territory. Quirks and ticks were suddenly full on characters habits, as if someone was just doing a very good impression him. Sparrow is often pegged as a character that can’t carry a film or that is more of a force than a character, and I don’t believe that’s true. There’s always been some very real darkness and fear driving him, and in On Stranger Tides I was watching a Jack Sparrow that had conquered some of those issues. There was more confidence in his swagger, and I particularly enjoyed how that played against Penelope Cruz’s new character. Sparrow is still victim to the double crosses and circumstance-reversals that fill a film like this, but he felt more on top of things. It feels appropriate for a character that has already died once, and seen the edge of the world to not be so childishly bumbling. His humor was still present, and he still has that way of deferring to threatening presences, but some of the clown dropped away around Angelica, and I liked that.
Unfortunately the film doesn’t incorporate the potential of some of these decisions with any particular skill, and it also fails to provide a character with a more clear arc. Sparrow is thoroughly the lead and that’s fine, but the large batch of mini-arcs divided among different characters doesn’t complete the picture. Angelica is fun, Blackbeard is fun, and there’s a dedication to who they are that works, but it doesn’t make the film thematically satisfying. However, Tides was ultimately a fulfilling experience for me because the filmmakers finally realized how incredible a character Geoffrey Rush has made Captain Barbossa, and his journey from King’s man to revenge-driven villainous pirate is excellent. His appearance and shift in circumstances are explained efficiently and logically (convolution or excessive exposition are nowhere to be found), and his progressive devolution into merciless revenger is a joy to watch. Each successive scene has him giving less of a shit about the crown, his men, and ultimately the entire journey in service to his one simple goal, which allows for equal comedy and villainy. I’d consider it the only perfectly executed element of the film, and thankfully it represents a fair amount of screentime.
The other character that makes a mediocre film worth watching is Ian McShane’s Blackbeard. I’m perplexed by the notion of any audience member not savoring his cruel performance, though it admittedly isn’t as grandiose as Rush’s Barbossa or as idosyncratic as Nighy’s (brilliant) Davey Jones. Instead, Blackbeard could as easily be a biker leading a motorcycle gang in Southern California or a cleaned-up executive fucking over a whole company’s worth of pensions- he’s classic psychopathic evil. McShane’s scenery chewing is certainly filled with plenty of verbal gnashing, but it’s really a confidence he brings (and those eyes) more than any particular vocal tick or linguistic flourish that makes him so fun to watch. While you always had the impression Barbossa enjoyed the back-and-forth with Jack on some subconscious level, with Blackbeard you feel Angelica’s diffusing presence is absolutely necessary- he wouldn’t think twice of slicing Sparrow’s throat after the first snide remark. It’s a shame such a strong villain will be lost to an ultimately unworthy film.
Josh: As long as I’m seconding things, I’ll also second your praise of Barbossa here. Or at least Barbossa’s storyline. I’m of the opinion that bringing Barbossa back in At World’s End was one of the elements that pointlessly overstuffed and distracted things. Had I been part of the developmental phase of On Stranger Tides I wouldn’t have included him here either. But what do I know? The guest I brought to the screening had the exact opposite opinion on Barbossa; she preferred At World’s End to Dead Man’s Chest for the precise reason that it featured more Rush. I still think I’m right regarding those films, but I would have been wrong to nix Rush from this installment. Barbossa had the most compelling journey in On Stranger Tides. Indeed, far more compelling than Captain Jack’s passive hero’s quest. Personally I see no reason why Captain Jack can’t work as a full-on protagonist. He didn’t work very well here, but I blame that on execution, not a flawed inherent reality of the character itself. I think the film could have been much stronger if Jack had actually cared about what he was questing for. The mistake was trying to keep the indifference for the bigger picture he’s previously had. We’ve seen enough of that.
I’m split on Blackbeard. No matter how many times McShane is handed the same sort of dastardly cad (a stat increased if we include his voice over acting), in which he does the exact same shit he always does with dastardly cads… I just don’t tire of it. McShane’s got one of the most intimidating glares any character actor, past and present. He’s my boo. Yet something was missing here with the character. I thought the slow burn leading up to Blackbeard’s first scene was both a good structural tactic and was well handled by Rob Marshall, especially as we get our first glimpse of Blackbeard’s explosive supernatural fury. But after that I felt like the presence of Blackbeard lessened, and I mean screen presence, not screen time. The shot of Blackbeard emerging from his quarters was perfect big villain presentation — slightly low angle, the glowing embers in beard, those eyes you mention Renn. Then, despite some of the heinous and mean things he does after this big showstopping entrance, he ended up feeling ancillary and of no more importance than any of the zillion other side characters. This may have been because Cruz’s character has such a different and positive opinion on Blackbeard that it waters down how terrible he can really seem. At least that’s how thing struck me.
Nick: The bottom line is that Blackbeard’s not dangerous. He glares and his ship kicks people’s asses, but the character is a wuss. Especially considering the sway Cruz’s character has on him in many scenes. Granted there are some where he seems aloof to her as well but luckily Ian McShane never gets old. His presence adds so much here. Rush is great as well. I think Jack Sparrow is the Han Solo character in this series, he’s great and he’s meant to brighten the proceedings whenever he’s onscreen but you can’t build the plot around him. What made him perfect in the first film and at times in the others so magnetic was that while he was in on the action his magic was in his reaction to it. He was playing in the margins and almost riffing on the action while the other characters did the generic stuff.
Renn: His evil could have been more consistently demonstrated, but I felt like they gave Blackbeard one of the most purely mean moments of the series- that first display of the firepower of the Queen Anne’s Revenge was not nice. I appreciated the sentiment of his little pirate roulette routine with Angelica, though the way it plays out is ultimately an over-wrought, kind of dumb way of going about it.
Taking a look at the script, it’s clear they were sharply focused on reversing all of the clutter of the sequels, stripping everything down to roughly the same complexity as the first film. Far from pulling off the same perfectly engineered adventure narrative though, this truly feels like a light pulp swashbuckler novel. It’s the fourth film in a different series- one that never went for end-of-the-world grandiosity, and didn’t re-purpose every character, prop, and dialogue reference in a giant blender of chaos. This would actually be a good thing, if they hand’t swung a bit too far back in the simplified, desaturated direction. The villain, the quest, the complications are all perfectly ripe for entertainment, but there aren’t many bombastic blockbuster moments that justify this as a year’s long, hugely expensive endeavor. I’d never ask for the silly end-all-be-all ambition of Dead Man’s Chest/At World’s End to return, but you can’t argue that you need a little of that in this kind of movie. While the idea of even more of these films will make many wince, this feels like a franchise bridge in which the series shakes off its baggage and resets a status quo for the characters we want to see.
Nick: I can see them returning to the cash register again because kids love Jack Sparrow and they will continue to like him until Johnny Depp is old and laying flowers on Tim Burton’s grave. The series is long past expired but it’s certainly not offensive. Keep in mind that when it’s all said and done this is a series based on a ride. The Matrix took something special and ruined it alarmingly fast. This series is one where every positive is a bonus. I’m not thrilled with the new one but it’s not anything worth railing against. I was amused for much of it, and in today’s summer movie environment there’s not a hell of a lot more to expect.
Josh: I still contend you could make a proper film with Captain Jack as the protagonist and have it work. Just as you could make a film with Han Solo as the protagonist and have it work. It just requires a small tweak in the character’s attitude, much like Fraiser needed a small tweak from his supporting character presence on Cheers when it was time to fly solo (I was going to say Wolverine, but that’s a shit example for obvious reasons).
Anyway, we seem to be mostly in agreement on the big picture here. I think people will enjoy this film, depending on what aspects of the franchise they’ve been attracted to thus far. On Stranger Tides lacks the clever narrative spark and purity of purpose of the original film (though it tries very hard to ape that film’s climax), but so did the other sequels. If you checked out after Curse of the Black Pearl there is no reason to check back in now. Those who consider themselves Pirates fans should be able to glean some enjoyment. Sure, there are plenty of misfires and distracting elements (we didn’t even mention the tacked on mermaid-Christianity romantic subplot), but there is also plenty of Captain Jack and Barbossa and Elliot & Rossio banter and magic’n’monsters. Plus, Cruz looking her usual interesting combo of cute/sexy, and of course, McShane’s thousand mile glare.
Much like Thor I didn’t find the 3D obtrusive or distracting, but that certainly isn’t praise; I see no reason to hand over extra $ for those glasses. See it in 2D. Though, really, if I were a regular consumer who only sees one or two movies in the theater per month (if that), I’d be renting this one. It will make a fab rental.
Renn: This is definitely worth watching if you care to enjoy the buffet of character acting, not for top-notch action. The action is always competent, but rarely blossoms beyond that. That said, I will give credit to Marshall and company for the mermaid capture sequence, which had a great sense of scale and geography and felt like it was sliced from a better film. The use of the mermaids was also much better than I expected- while their screechy, toothy evil faces were a little cliche, their attacks were ferocious and the sequence shot with a very real sense of danger. If only every action beat had the same spark behind it.
Concerning the 3D, I’ve finally turned the corner on live-action 3D. The native stereoscopic photography looks very nice to my eyes, and there is a good mix of subtlety and gimmickry. There was a great deal of depth brought to the frame on the ship sets, where ropes and trinkets hang all over the place. I could never argue that this dimension to the photography is worth paying a higher ticket price, but if you enjoy the format and are willing to watch it in 3D, you’ll definitely be seeing the film the way it was intended to be seen. Dariusz Wolksi has shot every Pirates film in the series (and he’ll be shooting Prometheus!), so he knows his way around a moon-lit deck or a tropical island landscape, and the consideration of depth brought to these environments is apparent to those who care to see it.
Returning to the film itself, it’s a shame the original creative team didn’t continue in full, because the pieces were here for a solid, straightforward adventure film, rather than the barely floating ship of entertainment we got. Again, there are no great lessons here, no lines to be drawn in the sand, and to peg this as the nadir of commercial cinema is… well, stupid. But even if it is an uptick from Disney’s last pair of cynical live-action event films (Alice in Wonderland and Tron: Legacy, which are both legitimate, full blown attacks on cinema itself), an earnest stumble is no great sign of hope from the massive studio.
I hope shit is gotten together, because the franchise will more than likely continue, and there’s no good reason why we can’t have solid pirate cinema to look forward to every couple of years. In the meantime though Johnny, please, do something new.
Nick: I found the 3-D to be subtle, which is a blessing and a curse (of the Black Pearl). It doesn’t stick out or draw attention to itself, which is nice. Other than the “sword through the door” gag in the trailer I don’t remember any glaring offenders. That said, it also didn’t heighten the experience. It just was there. There has to be a sense of vitality to justify this series henceforward. While I was entertained for the most part here, there is going to have to be some big strides moving forward. Either they should wholly embrace being kid’s films or they should up the ante and really dig deep into mariner’s folklore and bring forth a true monster-centric epic. The one great thing about Sparrow and the series is that as long as he’s in it and there’s a pirate element they can literally do anything. Bermuda Triangle, Sea Serpents, Atlantis, whatever. In fact, The Black Peal could get sucked up by a UFO and it would be no more a strain on the series’ credibility. This one gets a pass, albeit an indifferent one.
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