Johnny Depp, left, Penelope Cruz, right, and Ian McShane are shown in a scene from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.’
For the fourth voyage of the successful franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ditches the excess cargo of cumbersome subplots and overwrought CGI that weighed down the other films in the series, in favor of a more streamlined plot and lighter tone.
This makes for the kind of rollicking good adventure not seen since the first film in the series, after which the Pirates movies detoured sharply from swashbuckling fun to an overreaching and deadly serious mythos.
Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, has a highly individualized visual style. But he bought into the hype that there was more to these movies than a really good actor in the role of a lifetime and a lot of swordplay.
The movies needed new blood and fresh ideas behind the camera. It found it in Rob Marshall as Verbinski's replacement.
Best known for the stylish and Oscar-winning musical adaptation Chicago, Marshall brings a welcome sense of pace to the latest Pirates of the Caribbean. For starters, he shortened it. On Stranger Tides, at 139 minutes, is the quickest film in the series -- shaving a full half-hour, for instance, from the length of part 3, At World's End.
Along with the bloated running time, also gone and not particularly missed are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley -- the star-crossed lovers whose story more or less concluded in At World's End -- along with most of the other familiar faces from the Pirates films, excluding continual holdovers Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa.
Free of excess character baggage On Stranger Tides can get on with its job as breezy-action summer entertainment, a template successfully created by the Indiana Jones movies decades ago. So you can forgive On Stranger Tides if it feels like one big Indiana Jones quest for a mythical relic; only, instead of a biblical artifact, it's the fabled fountain of youth at the root of this story.
Sparrow, naturally, has the means to locate the fountain, which makes him important to England's King George, who wants to discover the key to long-lasting life before the Spaniards do. The King already has recruited the pirate Barbossa to lead a crew to the fountain, but Sparrow is reluctant to join their cause. Instead, he makes a daring escape from the king's men, only to be captured by an old flame with a grudge, Angelica (Penelope Cruz). Angelica also happens to be the daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the most-feared pirate of them all. The pair also are questing for the fountain of youth, and mean to get Sparrow's help to find it, willingly or not.
Ian McShane portrays Blackbeard.
Elaborate, expansive -- and expensive -- action scenes are hallmarks of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. On Stranger Tides, even with the change at director, delivers as well, with some spectacularly staged sword fights and high-seas peril. Marshall also continues the franchise's theme of old-fashioned action-movie filmmaking, employing physical sets and props instead of the digital variety, and seamlessly blending the two.
Among the new faces in the film, Cruz gives some spunk as an attractive nemesis, who is not to be underestimated. And McShane, the consummate villain with his menacing voice and dead-eye stare, brings danger to the movie. His ruthless and mystical Blackbeard is a pirate so fierce, few, including Sparrow, wish to meet, let alone tangle with, him.
Without Depp, the one constant in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, none of this would work. Despite the fact that there really isn't much new to the character, Sparrow, the swashbuckling pirate who perpetually seems one miscalculation away from doom, is charisma personified onscreen, and remains entertaining enough to shoulder the movies.
It seems so long ago that the idea of casting Depp in a summer blockbuster was thought to be box-office suicide by Walt Disney Pictures. Four films and a nearly $3 billion gross worldwide and that notion is laughable.
As the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has reminded us: never trust a pirate, and never underestimate one either.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6734.