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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

By Jim Smith on 18 May 2011

A fourth ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ film was inexplicably unexpected in some quarters. Our culture’s oafish obsession with ‘trilogies’ had led plenty of people to suggest, assert and/or assume that, having made three ‘Pirates’ films, the studio “should leave well alone” for the sake of some kind of artistic integrity.

Never mind that the preceding three films weren’t really a” trilogy” (more a standalone film with a two part sequel). Never mind that, as a series of kids adventure films based on a funfair attraction, they’d rightly never pretended towards any great artistic ambition. Instead being content to provide  a combination of crowd pleasing visuals, enjoyable performances, and the thrilling corkscrew structure of a superior rollercoaster.  Wasn’t the point of the first one that it was Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush as pirates? And that that was a lot of fun?

Film series which exist to provide a couple of hours of escapism for the viewer and a coffer full of dubloons for the studio only have to balance these two priorities. They only cease when they simultaneously fail to fulfil both criteria (Hello ‘Batman & Robin’!) and it’s frankly ludicrous to expect that they should. (If you do think that they should, you’re probably in denial about the inherently commercial nature of cinema as an artform.)

The idea that ‘Pirates’ should stop is linked to the notion that the series peaked in the middle, that the third film demonstrated ‘franchise fatigue’ and creative desperation.  I disagree. The staggeringly successful ’Dead Man’s Chest’ was partially an interesting experiment in darkening the series’ aesthetic; This disguised its many longeurs, indulgent moments and structural problems. The jollier ‘At World’s End’ took the stick for the flaws of both sequels, but I’d peg them as roughly equally as good as each other (within an acceptable margin of error). Neither eclipses the (initially genuinely surprising and invigorating) original.

What’s surprising about this new instalment is that, in terms of story, structure  and overall plotting, it’s a more disciplined and tidy picture than any of its three predecessors. It is – especially given its position in the series - almost remarkably restrained. This is possibly a result of being ostensibly  based on a (piratical, but not Jack Sparrow) novel by the estimable Tim Powers; the screenwriters have something to work from this time.

There are a fair few surprises in its twist turny plot and the fight scenes and set-pieces, while excessive, all do contribute to driving the (loose) narrative forward in some way.

The actors all turn and do what is required of them.  Depp, yes, as engaging as ever in his gift of a part, but also Geoffrey Rush (his most substantial appearance since the first one), Kevin McNally (in an expanded role), and guest stars Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz as new characters.

Frankly, anyone who thinks that Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley isn’t the best case of swopsies in the history of the world is beyond help.

Rush and McShane are clearly pleased to be engaging in a continual duel of overacting prowess as well as a climatic one with cutlasses and this is a pleasure to watch.  Elsewhere, Richard Griffiths, Anton Lesser, Roger Allam and Judi Dench turn up for tiny and broadly pointless cameos. Keith Richards turns for a more lengthy, amusing and plot vital one.

Cruz is lovely in an energetic and amusing part, easily Depp’s match and a plausible lead for a film like this should he decide to sit one out. (Although, while her involvement initially seems like a rare example of Hollywood giving a leading man an age appropriate romantic involvement, she still fully ten years Depp’s junior.)

It’s not all good news, though. Rob Marshall’s direction lacks the  loony tunes zing of Gore (‘Mouse Hunt’!) Verbinski’s and along with this lack of visual pep comes a general absence of sparkling dialogue. There are many lines of dialogue that the actors deliver in ways that indicate that they’re meant to be funny, but that’s not the same thing as them actually being funny.  (Weirdly, the picture often works better when dealing in sincerity and characterisation than dealing out witty comebacks).

After a smashing opening in a courtroom, the film detours into a lengthy chase around Georgian London which, while impressive, goes on rather long.  Things soon pick up as we head out to sea and become exponentially more interesting and entertaining as time passes. The picture ends in a way that allows an infinite number of further adventures, without setting up any one in particular. (You get the feeling that, audiences willing, the series will now simply run forever and indeed a fifth film is already being scripted.)

‘On Stranger Tides’ is enjoyable, beautifully made hokum, which strips away a lot of the barnacles that have built up on the hull of this franchise, delivering two hours of what’s at the core of the series’  appeal. Unlike the previous two films in the series it manages to build in both momentum and interest as it goes along and at no point does it crush your spirits by cutting back to Orlando Bloom or MacKenzie Crook. Which is certainly not nothing.

At the end of the day it’s Johnny Depp!And Geoffrey Rush!  And Ian McShane! As pirates!

And that’s still a lot of fun.  So there.


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One Response

  1. James says:

    Ian McShane’s a movie star now! WTF??!!!