Jack Sparrow is a durable sort, to say the least. We’ve seen him overcome curses, avoid hangings, run rings around fellow pirates and the British Navy, escape ghosts, zombies, and the Kraken, but now in Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides, he faces his greatest challenge yet: making me interested in a new Pirates Of The Caribbean movie.
Let’s address the elephant in the room right away: this review may as well not exist. It is totally and utterly redundant. Films are often described as review-proof, but even in a time where film critics have less of an influence over box office than in previous years, it’s rarely actually the case.
Except it really is the case with the Pirates films. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were both poorly received by critics, yet despite this, the combined global box office total of the sequels was just over $2 billion.
On Stranger Tides has the added bonus of being in 3D, which should add another few quid onto its box office. So for me to pretend to face up to the Pirates machine and condemn its incoherence and absence of character development as if what I say will make any difference whatsoever is going to be about as effective as a baby giving the moon the finger. Let’s all resign ourselves right now to the fact that On Stranger Tides will earn more money in six months than the whole of Germany will in a year, and move on.
Before we do though, here’s another reason why this review is largely meaningless: the Pirates series isn’t for us. The key demographic for the films is clearly eight to 12-year-olds, however many clunky innuendos and bizarrely unpleasant hanging sequences they want to tag on for the ‘grown-ups’. It’s this loyal pubescent audience that has led from the front to make the Pirates films one of the most successful film series in history.
But even taking into account that these are ultimately kids’ films, the disappointment of the middle chapters in the saga should not be overlooked. Completely incomprehensible plotting coupled with the sucking charisma vacuums of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom (not that I blame them – some of the characters in Pirates are so thinly drawn that the best actors in the world would struggle to make them interesting, unless they’ve got a comedy Keith Richards impersonation to fall back on, obviously) were huge flaws that, when combined with a bafflingly epic running time, rendered, for me at least, much of the films largely unwatchable.
So has On Stranger Tides rectified these issues? Is the series back on track? The answer is a resounding ‘kind of’.
Here’s the set-up: whilst dodging the navy in London, Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) discovers old flame Angelica (Penélope Cruz) impersonating him while recruiting sailors for her ship. After some playful fighting and flirting, Jack is tricked by her and knocked out. He wakes up to find himself on-board the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a legendary ship where Angelica is first mate and the captain is Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the mostfeared pirate on all of the seas.
Blackbeard, spooked by a soothsayer who has predicted he will die at the hands of a one-legged man, is attempting to find the mystical Fountain of Youth in a last ditch attempt to gain immortality. Coincidentally, that’s also where the newly one-legged Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is heading, now employed by the British Navy to get control of the Fountain of Youth before it is reached and captured by the Spanish.
That’s a very stripped down summation of the plot, but you can still probably tell from it that the plotting is just as convoluted as ever.
Annoyingly, there are a number of occasions where one of the characters (usually Jack) practically turns to the camera and says something along the lines of “Cor, this is all getting a bit complicated isn’t it?” It’s an ill-judged bit of meta-humour – the overly-cluttered storyline is a real problem for On Stranger Tides, as it has been throughout the series, so if the writers know this then, rather than giving knowing winks to the audience, wouldn’t they be better served to, y’know, sort it out?
Despite this, the story is nowhere near as scattershot and hard to follow as the previous two films. This may be down to the fact that much of the story is adapted from well-regarded pirate novel On Stranger Tides. Amusingly, the onscreen credit says the film was ‘suggested by’ the Tim Powers novel, which surely opens the door up for other vague credits like ‘implied by’, ‘emailed to’, and ‘siphoned from’.
As for Keira and Orlando, the filmmakers seem to have learned their lesson by ditching Willl and Elizabeth for On Stranger Tides, only to ruin everything by introducing a relationship between yet another pair of razor cheeked, anodyne milquetoasts around the halfway point. This half-arsed, asexual romance that blossoms between them is a completely extraneous subplot that appears to have been shoehorned into a story already fit to bursting in order appeal to (read: patronise) the pre-pubescent girl demographic.
Perhaps my biggest grievance with the film is the way it completely botches the character of Blackbeard. Ian McShane can certainly do evil and terrifying, as anyone who has seen Deadwood will attest. But Blackbeard as written by the Pirates screenwriters completely lacks any of the menace and dread that he is famous for, and just comes off as a bit lame. His wickedness in On Stranger Tides extends largely to having the magical power to operate rigging with his mind. Hardly the stuff of nightmares, really.
But here’s the thing: despite all of these many, many flaws, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have quite a good time with On Stranger Tides. I just can’t quite pinpoint why.
A big factor is probably its length. It’s still at least half an hour too long, but remarkably at 136 minutes, it’s the shortest of the films, a relative breeze when compared to the bladder-worrying lunacy of At World’s End’s 170-minute running time.
It moves at a cracking pace. While, like all the Pirates films, it’s ultimately just a bunch of pirate stuff loosely strung together, at least this time the stuff happens quickly, without much down time. I was rarely bored during On Stranger Tides, which was a nice surprise after the last two outings.
Maybe it’s the supporting performances. Penelope Cruz brings some much needed sex appeal to the series in her role, and Geoffrey Rush is as game as ever. Richard Griffiths has a lot of fun playing King George II as an 18th century Uncle Monty.
It could be the 3D, which is actually genuinely impressive at points. Director Rob Marshall makes sure to insert plenty of shots of swords poking out of the screen, and ghostly arms reaching towards you, which is exactly what 3D should be used for: fairground stuff. In a way, Pirates’ first foray into 3D marks it coming full circle back to the theme park from its humble origin as a novelty boat ride at Disneyland.
Mainly though, it’s down to Jack. Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards impression wore thin a long time ago, but remarkably, despite this, it’s still a lot of fun watching him run around, getting into scrapes, and lying, cheating and weaselling his way through the labyrinthine plot. The kids at the screening I attended obviously absolutely adore him, and it’s not hard to see why, even if you personally find his mannerisms irritating: he plays the role like a little kid with a pirate playset, and the value of that infectiousness to the films’ appeal is worth a thousand special effects.
On Stranger Tides isn’t a great film. To be honest, it’s not even a good one. But there is something heartwarming about the fact that the ADD-addled kids – and adults – of 2011 are still able to sit through over two hours of swashbuckling, and enjoy it just as the generations before us enjoyed the films of Errol Flynn, The Three Musketeers, and The Princess Bride.
As long as the Pirates series remains plagued by bad writing it’ll never come close to hitting the heights of those films, but if it’s a choice between this and Transformers, I’ll take this every single time.