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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp probably don't need the fountain of youth. But the Pirates franchise has seen better days.

Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp probably don't need the fountain of youth. But the Pirates franchise has seen better days.

Photograph by: Handout, Disney

Number 4 in the blockbuster franchise about a campy pirate -- still winningly played by Johnny Depp -- is a little less bloated than the previous one. Penelope Cruz co-stars as another buccaneer along on a search for the fountain of youth, but despite all the beauty on-screen, the franchise is beginning to feel tired.

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush

Rating: Three stars out of five

The return of Captain Jack Sparrow is always a moment to treasure, even if it's only for the joy of watching Johnny Depp's idiosyncratic gait, a buccaneer swish of delicate inebriation. "Did everyone see that? Because I'm not doing it again," he'll say with an unfocused prissiness after one of several daring stunts that challenge his essential cowardice. Sparrow is one of the great creations in pirateering, a Keith Richards homage so loving that Keith Richards himself has joined the films.
But in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- fourth in the series of multibillion-dollar blockbusters -- it's starting to feel like we've buckled these swashes before. Trimmed down from the bloated excesses of Pirates No. 3, the film still betrays its origin as a theme-park ride. Even Depp seems to be tired. He's not walking through the role or anything, but the swish is losing its snap.
The story is about a search for the fountain of youth, but story has never been the strong point in the Pirates series: We're forever lost in a constantly growing mythology of legendary monsters, undead sailors and, in this new film, a school of vicious mermaids who are sort of waterlogged vampires. Like they said in Jaws, we're going to need a bigger boat.
Jack has been press-ganged to service aboard the ship of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), a blackguard running another supernatural operation -- his ship is staffed by a "zombified" crew -- in a film that doesn't really need it. Whatever happened to pirates who could get by on bottles of rum and parrots on their shoulders?
Blackbeard is one of several newcomers to the franchise, the chief one being his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz), whose exotic beauty is out of place in the rough-and-tumble high seas, but who's counting? Not much is in place in the Pirates films, and while Cruz is alluring, she and Depp never ignite very much of the erotic antagonism that is meant to drive the romantic portion of the film.
More like it is Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), an energetic presence who has now become an official government pirate -- Republicans take note -- also racing toward the fountain of youth, albeit with a wooden leg. He also represents the villain's comeuppance: The legend is that Blackbeard will "die at the hands of a one-legged man," raising a confounding vision of mismatched limbs.
Director Rob Marshall, a veteran of screen musicals (Chicago, Nine) adeptly moves the adventure forward as if he were going from one song-and-dance number to another. In a way, he is: Depp's performance has the campiness of a nightclub act, and at times he looks like a cross-dresser going out on Halloween as a pirate. The films are never afraid to wink at themselves, but the winking is getting lazier: Richards, in his cameo as Jack's father, asks, "Does this face look like it's been to the fountain of youth?" It's obvious, but it also acutely undermines the movie's point. Do Depp and Cruz really need to look younger?

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