As I sit here on vacation at Disneyland, having just seen the latest entry in the studio’s flagship franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean,” I must admit to a certain degree of writer’s block.
I was all prepped to write a scathing critique of the film, considering the atrocious reviews it has been receiving in the critical community and the equally horrid word-of-mouth it’s been getting from the general public. And I find it very easy to review films that are either great or terrible, because they ignite a passion within me — for better or worse. So this was to be an easy task, with me chilling in a hotel room, wearing an eye patch and a silly pirate hat, drinking Captain Morgan from the bottle whilst I type away madly about how the sheer badness of the fourth “Pirates” movie has driven me to alcoholism.
But no such luck. You see, against all odds and despite what you may have heard from basically everybody you’ve ever met, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is not a bad film. It is not aggressively stupid, as some have charged, nor is it woefully boring. Its horridness will not inspire you to burn effigies, and it is not among the worst films you will see this year. In fact, in many respects, it is indistinguishable from the rest of the movies in the series.
But that’s the problem. Uninspired, inert and listless on every conceivable level, “On Stranger Tides” is perfectly content to simply exist alongside its predecessors without setting itself apart in any meaningful way. The result is a summer spectacle without the spectacle. With nothing even remotely new or interesting to offer audiences, the film just sits there, waiting for you to be impressed simply by virtue of the fact that you are watching a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.
Frankly, I would have preferred if the film had been technically worse than it is, provided it was more its “own movie” and took a few gambles once in a while. As it stands, it is simply “there,” and doesn’t even feel worthy of a traditional critique, given its stubborn refusal to step out from behind the shadows of its more lively predecessors. It is as close to a non-movie as you will ever see, and perhaps the most striking example of by-the-numbers studio hackery that we have seen in several summers. But hey — at least it’s not “bad,” right?
The film (which involves a search for the Fountain of Youth, and that’s all you’ll get out of me plot-wise because, trust me, a recap just isn’t worth the effort) was directed by Rob Marshall, the filmmaker who came out of nowhere a decade ago to razzle-dazzle us with his visionary handling of “Chicago,” only to slip into mediocrity in recent years with “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Nine.” But at least his last two works, unremarkable as they were, displayed some amount of style and originality. “On Stranger Tides” feels like it might as well have been the work of a random studio drone like Brett Ratner or Paul W.S. Anderson.
The movie offers up its share of action, chase and fight sequences, but few if any will stick out in your mind afterwards. (Watch! as Captain Jack Sparrow swings from a chandelier to escape the king’s guards. Look! as he lazily saunters into and out of the series’ 57th meaningless sword fight. Sit there thoroughly unimpressed! as he rides atop a carriage in whacky chase-scene fashion and takes time out to flirt with a dame.) There’s a creepy bit involving the awe-inspiring destructive power of pissed-off mermaids, but besides that it’s all par for the course.
With no compelling story or engaging action sequences to guide the film along, it’s up to the cast to pick up the pieces. Many of the actors do what they can to inject some life into the proceedings, particularly series newcomer Ian McShane (immortalized but forever typecast by his iconic role in HBO’s “Deadwood”) as the dreaded pirate Blackbeard, nee Edward Teach. His cold stare and deliciously intimidating line readings ensure that his character serves as a formidable villain, but unfortunately, with the exception of his fire-and-brimstone introductory scene, he is never given anything interesting to do.
Also notable is Geoffrey Rush, returning as sometime-hero Captain Hector Barbossa. Again, his character isn’t given much to do until the vengeance-soaked finale, but his boundless energy and clear affinity for the character shine through in every scene. Yet if this series is to continue (as it will, seeing as how Johnny Depp has embraced the idea of a six-movie run), it’ll take more than a couple cool villains and Rush’s admittedly priceless mugging. It will require some nominal creativity — nothing fancy, just a periodic burst of genuine vitality to keep things interesting. And please, can we have a return to the carefree, mischievous energy that permeated the first two films, and step away from the plodding lethargy that has defined the last two entries?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ride the real Pirates of the Caribbean.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.