Did anyone actually expect “Pirates of the Caribbean” to be as good as it was? Sure, it’s a movie about pirates and Johnny Depp’s tipsy Keith Richards impersonation, but it’s also based on ride at Disneyland for Christ’s sake. It certainly surprised the hell out of me. The sequels, “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, both sucked, but the original holds up. And while nowhere near as good as the first, the latest film in the franchise, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, is exponentially better than the second and third installments.
Part of my problem with two and three is that they took the best part of the first film, Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, and screwed with the character. Sparrow is a self-interested scallywag, to be sure, but he’s not an entirely bad dude at his core, and while he’ll screw you over and abandon you, he’ll feel guilty about it and come back to rescue you, eventually. In “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, however, he was just a complete turd, and after a while I stopped rooting for him. Couple this with the fact that the first movie was able to keep Orlando Bloom’s douchbaggery in check, while it was allowed to run roughshod all over the sequels, and I never need to watch them again.
“On Stranger Tides” returns the Cap’n to his original form, the first time you see him, he’s laying it all on the line to rescue his first mate, Gibbs (Kevin McNally), from an imminent execution in London. After engineering a daring escape, Jack hears rumors that someone is attempting to rustle up a crew using his good name. Turns out that the imposter is Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an ex-flame in drag, a woman who had been training to be a nun before she met a certain heavily-mascara’d pirate. Through a series of unfortunate events, unfortunate for Jack anyhow, he is shanghaied and wakes up in the last place any pirate wants to be, below deck on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the infamous ship of the even more infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Blackbeard is on his way to find the fountain of youth in order to avoid his impending death, which was foretold in a prophecy. Oh yeah, it also turns out that Angelica is Blackbeard’s daughter. That’s going to be an issue.
As if all of this isn’t enough, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) pops up again, hot on their tail, and those pesky Spanish are also in the hunt. Then there are zombies, mermaids (who are cannibals with Spider-Man-esque webs, who knew?), voodoo, a mysterious ritual no one knows much about, and all manner of other roadblocks to overcome. There a swordfights galore, swinging from yardarms, and all of the usual swashbuckling goodness that you want from a movie about pirates.
It’s fun, but “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is far from perfect. There is no reason for it to be as long as it is. The plot is needlessly complex, and in trying to be twisted it only succeeds in being silly and muddy. There are subplots that should have been trimmed way down, if not cut out all together. Chief among these is the awkward love story between a sexy missionary (Sam Claflin) and an equally sexy kidnapped mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), that never resolves, and I can only suspect is some sort of lead in to the next sequel. (Only time will tell how valid my theory is.) At times the movie gets too cute and cheeky, like when Jack pauses to eat a pastry in mid skirmish. You’ll recognize a few scenes because they were lifted straight from the earlier films. The initial meeting between Jack and Angelica is virtually identical to the first battle between Jack and Will in the first film, even down to the duel in the rafters. But the worst issue for me was the 3D. I’m not a fan of the choice to make every big, epic, adventure movie in 3D, but in this case it is especially pointless. The only times director Rob Marshall and crew make use of the technology are the moments when Blackbeard or some other character points his sword at someone. Aside from this handful of instances, the rest of the 3D is just a distraction, or worse, completely unnoticeable.
Yeah, there are problems, lots of them. Some of these troubles might be unforgivable in other movies, and some seriously stupid shit happens near the end, but the fun parts are fun enough carry you through most of the rough patches. And McShane is a fantastic addition to the series. His Blackbeard delivers an appropriate level of menace, and his sinister presence helps balance out some of the weaker elements. “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” isn’t a good as some of this season’s earlier blockbusters, like “Thor” and “Fast Five”, but once you’ve seen those, and when you have some time to kill before “Green Lantern” and “X-Men” open, it’s an entertaining popcorn movie that’s worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.