When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003 to an unsuspecting audience, it was something of a revelation. Capitalising on the long forgotten action adventure of the swashbuckling age, a healthy dose of chemistry from its main cast and an unnerving sense of fun, the film became an instant success - so what if its inspiration was a simple children’s ride in the Disneyland resort. After its unqualified success, something odd happened, just as Lucas did with Star Wars and the Wachowski brothers did with The Matrix, Verbinski went on record as saying this was the first part of a trilogy and was always meant to be – which is utter nonsense; as with all of the above mentioned films, they were financed and written as single films; only their subsequent success paved the way for more entries. So, three years later and filmed concurrently there were two later instalments utilising the same characters though in a vastly different story, the cinema was ‘treated’ to Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. While both are undeniably huge in terms of production they are both tiny in development and story, something that the critics and cinema going public alike were not shy in voicing. Though massively successful, it seemed the Pirates had had their time in the sun. Yet, Hollywood never seems to know when to stop. Countless sequels are made and very few are successful. So, another decision was made to set sail once again with Captain Jack Sparrow, this time in 3D, and On Stranger Tides, the fourth ‘Pirates’ movie, is with us. Let’s dive in and take a look.
On Stranger Tides is a vastly different film to its predecessors, in scale, scope and direction. Gone are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, the Black Pearl is now in a bottle and so too is Gore Verbinski, handing over directing duties to Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine). Returning we have Kevin McNally as deck hand Joshamee Gibbs, the superb Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa and, of course, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. The character of Sparrow has, justifiably, become something of an icon, irrespective of how you perceive the characterisation, the over the top “look at me” screen stealing persona that is Depp’s interpretation, there is no denying that without Sparrow, there simply is no ‘Pirates’. It is a testament to Depp’s skill that we can still warm to this character who, by all accounts, should be reviled as the despicable pirate he truly is. During the first film we got to know and understand what made Sparrow tick; during the second and third instalments he went through a bit of a story arc (prophecy, death and life) and was ultimately revealed to be something of pirate royalty – this was just about credible, even considering what we ‘knew’ about him from the first film. However, during this fourth instalment his character seems to have taken a bit of a sidewise step – no longer is he ‘lucky’ in his escapes, rather he is seen to plan, and neither is he able to talk himself out of any situation and swap ‘sides’ on a whim because he always has a scheme in the back of his mind. It’s only a small change in character and one could argue that with all he’s been through, such a minor change is ‘development’, however, I’m not convinced, Sparrow needs to be the centre of the show, it’s what drives the franchise and in altering how he is perceived on screen the makers have weakened, not only the character, but the film as a whole.
Unfortunately he is not the only one that has suffered a change, Barbossa is almost unrecognisable, he is no longer Captain of the Pearl, but now a Privateer working for the King of England – this was a man who was consumed by the Aztec gold, cursed and undead, whose desires would never be quenched – he too has been through death and life only to come out the other side and now he seems to have lost all of his vigour, his cunning and his fear. Although it is revealed he is, in fact, out for revenge and this does go some way to restoring his character, something is indelibly lost.
On the plus side there are two new faces replacing those of Bloom and Knightley, namely Penélope Cruz and Ian McShane playing Angelica Teach and Blackbeard respectively. Cruz plays her part with the Spanish fire that she is famous for, she smoulders across the screen, setting it alight with her swagger. In this regard she blows Knightley out of the water, but when it comes to her chemistry with Depp, the fire is dampened considerably – considering these two characters are supposed to have had a steamy past and may have given Sparrow ‘ stirrings’ when the two are on screen together, you simply don’t feel it. Consider the two scenes, Knightley and Depp marooned and Cruz and Depp on a similar island – the former had tangible, if misguided, chemistry, the latter had nothing, even when Cruz ‘turned it on’. Whilst this is a huge drawback to their relationship, Cruz, herself, is actually pretty good in what little is demanded of her in the role. On far more menacing form is McShane as the main villain of the piece Blackbeard. Ever since Deadwood, McShane, who is actually one of the sweetest actors working, seems to relish taking the villainous part; and better yet is now looks the part too! Blackbeard, in this interpretation, is the most feared pirate in the sea, he rules his ship with supernatural power and used voodoo to enchant (zombify) his officers to complete subservience and used dolls to hold sway over others. His first appearance on deck during the mutiny shows what power he wields, and not just in the size of his beard, which would give Gimli a run for his money, seems his sword can control every facet of the ship, from its speed on the water to the rigging itself – I wonder why he need the sailors then ...? Over and above this he is presented as utterly ruthless, his punishment dealt out to instil the fear required to keep command after the mutiny is perhaps the harshest ever seen in the franchise, add to that the use of his own daughter as a bargaining chip and the slaying of anyone that gets in his way, this, clearly, is the darkest character ever presented in any of the films. As such, I’m not sure he needed that ‘super natural’ element at all. I know the franchise has always held such ideals close, indeed it revolves around it in most cases, in this film it seems forced, tacked in, like an afterthought, as if someone realised that ‘Pirates’ needed to have something otherworldly over and above mermaids and the Fountain of Youth. And it does nothing to add to the character of Blackbeard, when, at the end, he is just the controller of the power, not the root.
But perhaps the biggest change is that of the director, Verbinski helmed the first three films, ‘Pirates’ is his. So filling his shoes must have been a daunting task, not least when considering the financial decisions to scale back the production and make it more character driven. The franchise is based upon preposterous ideas and grand spectacle, the characters come secondary; this is not ‘drama’. But being ‘Pirates’ and still very much a Bruckheimer production it is still lavishly produced with plenty going on, but this time there are semblances of character development which does not quite sit right in the narrative structure of the picture, particularly when we have to be told about it. Look at the first film, the opening and then subsequent meeting of Will and Elizabeth; we know all we need to know about these two instinctively because we have seen it and thus further development is simple and natural. In this fourth instalment we have to be told that Angelica and Jack have a past and that it was more than just a fling, but because we haven’t seen it, it is not natural and seems completely forced just to push what little narrative there is forward. (The best chemistry is shared between the preacher Philip and the mermaid Syrena, whose small story arc is one of the highlights of the picure).
And this leads me onto the biggest flaw of the movie. The narrative. The plot of the film is abundantly simple. Three forces want to reach the Fountain of Youth, the Spanish, The English and Blackbeard. But, and here is the flaw, whist each have their own agenda there is no real drive, no urgency and thus no building of climax – in the final confrontation no one really cares who comes out on top because there is not enough invested in any one side. When trying to humanise the proceedings, by scaling back the tragedy to just Angelica and Jack, who pulls a sword out by holding the blade, how contrived was that? Add to this the insistence of the writers to explain the same thing over and over again there is a distinct lack of imagination or respect of the intended audience.
Luckily there is enough spectacle thrown at the screen to keep the mind occupied, wild swordfights, insane stunts and huge action set pieces are never far away, all set to Hans Zimmerman’s wonderful score which he has been building upon since the second film while continuing to pay homage to Klaus Badelt’s original. What I did find lacking though, and this is in common with the second and third instalments, is that there are no lighter character moments to counter balance the action, and that the overriding sense of fun which was so abundant with the first film has been diminishing over time until now it is at such a low ebb that it is barely discernable, Jack Sparrow notwithstanding.
Where does it stand in relation to the other films? Personally I think the law of diminishing returns is at full work; start at the beginning and they get progressively worse. Does that make it any less fun? For me yes. Do I regret seeing it? Hell no! But I do wonder if Jack will ever take to the waters again .....
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