Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides–Chapter 4 in Series, Starring Johnny Depp

Against all odds, four may be the lucky number for Disney and its mega-hit franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a series that began high a decade ago and reached a nadir in 2007 with “At World’s End,” the muddled and tiresome third installment.

Johnny Depp, reprising his iconic, Oscar-nominated part of Captain Jack Sparrow, is easily the best element of the new chapter, as he was of the previous ones. Appearing in almost each and every scene, Depp gives a dominant performance that holds together the rather loosely structured film, which changes scenery, plot, and tone from one sequence to another.

Narratively, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” leaves much to be desired, but, overall, it succeeds in capturing some of fun, humor, and adventure that defined the first film, “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” when it came out of nowhere (so to speak) and in the process revivified a genre that was all but dead. In an effort to revamp and reenergize the blockbuster, Disney has hired a new director, Rob Marshall, gotten rid of two major characters (played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley), and cast the feisty Penelope Cruz, international cinema’s most recent sex symbol, in a major part.
At the very least, the chemistry that was so much missing in “The Tourist” between Depp and Angelina Jolie, is very much in evidence here when Depp and the Latina spitfire Penelope Cruz, who plays Angelica, share  the screen. (In one scene, they even look alike!).
This time around, the adventure-comedy is shot in digital 3D, in various colorful locations, including a wild jungle. The quest that drives the plot is not for a desirable object, but for the Fountain of Youth, not exactly a fresh idea, but one that enriches the story with new directions and new possibilities.

In many recent interviews, star Johnny Depp, rumored to get paid north of $35 million for his work (excluding points and other benefits) has been critical of the series’ last chapter, “At World’s End,” its confusing plot, lack of clear and coherent text, and so on. We can deduct that he also noticed a general attitude of laziness, taking for granted the good faith of the millions of fans, which resulted in an overly long, stale, uninvolving, self-indulgent picture.
I realize that at this point “Pirates of the Caribbean” may be immune to criticism. Indeed, no matter how mixed (or negative) some of the reviews would be, they would have no impact on the box-office, domestically or internationally. Disney has been spending a lot of time, money, and energy in marketing the film, which has a global appeal and is considered to be a blockbuster of unprecedented proportions.
The movie is sure to break records when it opens theatrically after its showing at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest (where it is presented as an official selection but out of the main competition).Holding the world premiere in Disneyland was more than appropriate, for watching the movie is like taking a series of diverse rides, some more pleasurable than others. Like its predecessors, this tale begins in high gear, and progressively the set-pieces just get bigger, louder, longer—and more preposterous as far as plot is concerned.

At the end of these rides, which are sharply uneven in energy, thrill, and excitement, you may be relieved that the experience is over—and that it will take at least two or three more years until the fifth chapter comes out.

Speaking of length, if memory serves, this chapter, cloaking in at 136 minutes, is the shortest of the four, which is a good thing for the viewers as well as the theater exhibitors, who may be able to squeeze in another showing per day.

There is some new blood to empower the rejuvenation of this segment, including a new villain simply called Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane, a mythical and mystical heavy, who may or may not be Penelope Cruz’s biological father. Director Marshall and his writers have shrewdly discarded the convoluted subplots of the second and third segments, instead adapting to the screen a novel by Tim Powers, “On Stranger Tides,” which has nothing to do with the series, to fit their specific narrative goals.

The hodge-podge story, truly a mishmash, begins quite nicely in 18th century London in a courthouse that sees Richard Griffiths as George II, and Depp’s Captain Sparrow staging a thrilling escape on ropes and carriages (one of which is inhabited by none other than Judi Dench). Well-executed, this sequence offers visual pleasure and the kind of thrills that are seldom matched later on.
Sparrow, who is in London in search of a ship, is pursued by the authorities. Hearing that an impostor Sparrow is auditioning pirate recruits at a local pub, he seeks out the interloper. Lo and behold, the mysterious stranger turns out to be his former flame, the sexy Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who he had rejected.
Now disguised as Sparrow, Angelica had never forgotten or forgiven him. It’s clear that the two are still very much attracted to each other, and it’s only a matter of time before they rekindle their affair. (Take a deep breath: It takes a long time before they kiss!)
The duo begins arguing in the first reel, and their bickering continues as a running, if increasingly tiresome, joke throughout the yarn. This verbal scene is followed by a clash of swords in a nicely staged set-piece. Angelica then kidnaps Sparrow and drops him aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, headed by Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who may or may not be her birth father.

Geoffrey Rush reprises his role as Captain Barbossa, Sparrow’s longtime rival, except that now he appears with a peg leg. Having left his pirate’s life, Barbossa seeks the Fountain on behalf of the king of England, who’s eager to find it and beat the competition from a rival crew, which is sent by the king of Spain. The story is structured as a race against time, namely, which party will be the first to get to the Fountain of Youth.
The one fresh element in the saga is a group of seductive mermaids, which, under some conditions, can turn into monstrous and vicious creatures.  No more details can be disclosed without spoiling the fun, suffice is to say that along the way, they are cruelly tortured, hunted, and even slaughtered.
Not neglecting the romantic angle, the film offers two potential and bizarre affairs, between Sparrow and Angelica, and between one gorgeous-looking captive mermaid (played by the beautiful Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and an honest and gallant clergyman (played by the handsome actor Sam Claflin), who’s determined to save her.