~ ~is the fourth entry into the Pirates of the Caribbean series, directed by Rob Marshall of Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine fame. The film is based on the book On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, which also inspired the LucasArts game series The Secret of Monkey Island
After seeing Capt Jack Sparrow (played by the forever young Johnny Depp) rowing in the sea with the map to the fountain of youth at the end of the last instalment, we meet him here in London as he sets about rescuing his former first mate, Joshamee Gibbs (played again by Kevin McNally) being hanged. Soon they are both brought before King George II ( played by Richard Griffiths), who wants Jack to guide an expedition to the Fountain of Youth before the Spanish get to it first. During the meeting Jack crosses paths with his nemesis, Captain Barbossa ( played once again by Geoffrey Rush) who is now in the Kings British Navy, minus the Black Pearl, and his leg. Amongst all of this Jack must also discover the identity of an imposter who is recruiting a crew to also search for the Fountain, where wackiness ensues.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was actually quite a gamble back in 2003. Cutthroate Island, Directed by Die Hard 2’s Renny Harlin and starring Geena Davis, and Matthew Modine sunk an entire production company and regaled Geena to television ever since. It is amazing that the director is still working in Holywood! In the early 00’s we had fantasy movies coming out of our ears, what with the The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the never-ending Harry Potter movies. Disney obviously wanted to get onto the gravy train and so, using a title that they already had the rights to, and a plethora of Pirate books to plunder (arrrr), Disney went ahead and produced a fantasy action adventure with a hint of the supernatural. If the movie sunk, it would still make a killing in the box-office due to its already standing Disney goodwill. The production would have been solid, with a wonderful score to match. Swashbucking to-and-fro would bring in the older crowd watching for a hint of matinee nostalgia, and the inclusion of “he’s-so-hot-right-now” LOTR Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightly would get the tweens in. Geoffrey Rush would be on board as a character actor, and Johnny Depp’s involvement would be enough to pump the project to A-level status.
However, something peculiar happened; a fortuitous, unexpected ingredient. The star, who was hired for nothing more than an A-list presence delivered a crafted, three dimensional performance!
Johnny Depp took the notion of a dirty, conniving, rebellious pirate and completely flipped it on its head. Inverting the notion of a pirate, Johnny Depp’s Capt Jack Sparrow was an observer of the action, not an antagonist nor a protagonist, Jack was an amoral watcher, flipping in and out of the goings-on as it suited him. Instead of the traditional villain, Capt Jack had a conscience. Instead of a traditional hero, Capt Jack was an opportunistic coward. Johnny’s Jack was a creature of survival, acting and reacting off of the world’s developments, and always trying to come out on top, with no other real motive than just simple survival. Hell: his magical compasss couldn’t even tell him what his true heart desired.
Johnny’s Johnny also gave his Capt Jack a whole host of mannerisms, quirks and aural inflections, fully rounding his character out. Johnny Depp reportedly admitted that he held onto a slew of character traits after playing gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Here, Depp goes back to the well and pulls out a pirate who is more rock-star than anything else. It is no surprise then when Johnny later admitted his Capt Jack was based on and inspired by the living rock legend Keith Richards who would go on later to play Sparrow’s father. Johnny’s Pirate held a swagger, a drunken broken speech pattern and a natural campiness that seems inherent in 70’s-80’s rock. Capt Jack Sparrow was a rock legend without a band, constantly lost without his crew and stage; the Black Pearl.
If Johnny’s risky performance (backed only by Dick Cook, former Chairman of Walt Disney Studio Entertainment) was the ingredient that launched the first Pirate’s into the stratosphere, it was milked during the inferior, increasingly convoluted sequels. Capt Jack seemed to be restrained more-so as more screen-time was dedicated to Orlando, Kiera and a swath of second stars and extras. The plots were convoluted, the storylines multiplied, and we were taken further away from what made the first one so fantastic: the character of Capt Jack Sparrow.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was given a smaller budget compared to the sequels (55.5 million of it going to Johnny Depp), and only Capt Jack Sparrow.and Barbossa were expected to return in this new spin-off. There was an expectation that the movie would be scaled back to concentrate on the strengths of the first instalment, being the Capt Jack Sparrow.character.
At the end of the 2nd instalment, Capt Jack was devoured and killed by the Kracken, transporting him to limbo, or, Davey Jones’ Locker. From this expeireince, Jack resolves to never die again, thus attempting to become the Capt of The Flying Dutchman to live forever, albeit under a curse. When this attempt fails, he is determined to uncover the Fountain of Youth.
Instead of stripping down events, characters and plot-lines in an attempt to have a more character based story following Jack as he attempts to avoid his mortality, the film instead repeats the mistakes that bogged down the original trilogy; too many characters, too many subplots, too many mindless action set-pieces and too much exposition. We have another evil Capt Pirate (Blackbeard played by Ian McShane) who has a super power that allows him to magically steer his own ship (why does he need a crew?), and after the jettison of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightly’s character’s from the series, the filmmakers feel the need to shoehorn a young couple back in. This movie does all of this, replicating the original trilogy, on a lesser budget and it shows.
Another problem is the characters’ intent. Why is everyone searching for the Fountain of Youth? Instead of following Jack as he goes about finding it from the ending of the last film, we are inexplicably in London where many a thing have changed, and we need to be brought up to speed through exposition. Barbossa, who has already escaped death after being killed at the climax of the superior first film is now working for the British Royal Navy, minus a leg. The Black Pearl is once again lost, again emasculating Jack.
Penélope Cruz is introduced as a past jilted lover much like Marion from the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, and once the characters are all set up, its back to business as usual, although in rather darker settings, more muddled fight scenes leading to an empty, bland feeling: the difference between a matinee and a pantomime.
On the plus side, if the first one is to be remembered for the creepy un-dead crew, the second for the sea creatures (and third) this one’s highlight is undoubtedly the spooky, nasty little mermaids led by Australia’s Gemma Ward. The beautiful french actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey plays an extremely vulnerable mermaid, and it would be fantastic to see her in another feature soon.
Instead of just giving the audience what they want ( Capt Jack Sparrow captaining the Black Pearl and being a Pirate! Arrrr), Disney has delivered the least satisfying Pirates movie yet. There are another 2 planned (filmed back to back). I would recommend watching the first one again, however, this film is doing gangbusters so perhaps it is the case of why try harder?
It is fun admittedly, and because its cheaper than travelling to London and watching a god-awful pantomime, I’m giving this 2.5 out of 5 mermaids.
Luke McWilliams June 2011