Wheezing into cinemas weighed down by bloated salaries and self-regard, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a thoroughly unlikable piece of summer trash.
Has any franchise degenerated so quickly from breezy blockbuster fun to cynical bank-balance stalwart? At least all that Pirates loot is allowing Disney to take interesting creative risks on, um, oh.
Captain Jack’s swagger may remain, but the twinkle in Depp’s eye here sputters and dies, extinguished by a film that utterly fails to recapture any of the magic of earlier instalments. Not that there was much magic left by the World’s End.
So forgettable was that third film, it’s genuinely hard to remember whether Pirates 4 is continuing some sort of thread as the early action takes us to London, where Sparrow has pitched up to save old mucker Gibbs from the gallows. He has, in the meantime, apparently been searching for the Fountain of Youth, a fact established in a gut-wrenchingly awful piece of exposition that sets up some dimly illuminated quest, which will itself turn into a race between English, Spanish and pirate factions to be the first to reach this mythical location.
These London scenes are key to establishing several important points about the new Pirates of the Caribbean, not least the fact that there will be very few visits to the Caribbean, and not a whole lot of pirating either – it takes 30 interminable minutes for Jack to get anywhere near a boat. To pass the time, we’re treated to a slew of set pieces from a palace break-out to a sword fight in an ale house that ought to have been thrilling but either remind you of past glories (including the charming fight that introduced Jack to Will in Pirates 1) or are so assaultively staged by director Rob Marshall that they lose any impact, visceral or emotional.
Pirates was always a more-is-more kind of franchise, but here that ethos is ramped up to a ludicrous and reductive degree. Any trace of subtlety is stamped out by an incessant thundering soundtrack and a car-crash pile up of monotonous action beats. Only a sequence in which Jack and new nemesis Blackbeard (Ian McShane) fight off some murderous mermaids has any semblance of excitement or originality. That scene, somewhere around the half-way mark, also introduces the film’s most engaging subplot – a tentative romance between a captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and a preacher (Sam Claflin).
McShane, at least, invests Blackbeard with an energy that the rest of the cast sorely lacks. Sparrow desperately needs an injection of mojo that Depp, once the renegade Hollywood outsider, forfeited when he started banking $50 million pay cheques. With no Bloom and Knightley on board, the ships are back to being the most wooden things in the film, but Geoffrey Rush, Keith Richards and (in cameo) Richard Griffiths compete for the honour of chief ham, easily beating an actual pig in the process. The dialogue, meanwhile, sounds like it was written by Yoda. Fair enough, these are pirates, but to borrow a phrase from Blackadder: “’Yes it is’, not ‘that it be’!”
To make matters worse, Marshall drapes long sections of the film in drab semi-darkness, which, when viewed through the light-sucking lenses of 3D glasses, makes much of the detail difficult to pick out. There are a handful of shimmering sequences in the sunlight, but not enough.
Ponderous, charmless and, above all else, joyless, On Stranger Tides is scarcely a movie at all. It’s just a line item on a balance sheet.
A creaking franchise groping desperately towards renewal.
There are rare moments when the old sense of fun resurfaces, but On Stranger Tides is another gigantic waste of time, talent and treasure.
If there’s a retirement home for pirates, Jack Sparrow might want to go on a quest to find it.