Jack Sparrow--sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow--is undeniably one of the best action characters to come out of the movies since Indiana Jones traded an idol for a whip. World renowned actor Johnny Depp plays Sparrow as a man out of his own head, and yet always in command of a situation, even when it feels like he isn't. Over the course of three movies, Depp has made Sparrow into one of the most recognizable figures in modern film. And yet, despite international fame and record box office numbers, critics and even fans were turned off by the last Pirates sequel (if not both of them). Too long, too complex, too many supporting characters. The criticisms are varied and often valid. To bring Sparrow back to the screen for a fourth time, Disney ditched previous director Gore Verbinski in favor of Rob Marshall (Chicago). But can Marshall fill Verbinski's accomplished shoes?
On Stranger Tides finds Jack Sparrow without a ship or crew, but in possession of a map that leads to the Fountain of Youth. Investigating a Sparrow impostor in London, Jack discovers Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a woman he led astray many years before. She kidnaps him and takes him aboard her ship, or, more specifically, the ship of her master, the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Blackbeard wants the Fountain for himself, but he's got competition in the form of the British Navy, led by a reformed Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and the Spanish Armada. It's up to Jack to find the Fountain, and thwart not just Blackbeard but all of the various factions vying to control this incredible power, all while figuring out where he stands with Angelica.
On Stranger Tides does correct a few of the mistakes of the last two films. The plot is much simpler. It's so simple, in fact, that it doesn't even need Jack, who has his map stolen from him in mere minutes. As the story progresses, Jack is continually put into dangerous situations, but I kept asking myself why. Everyone makes a big deal of needing him around, but he offers nothing that his compass by itself couldn't provide. The movie also doesn't call for many of the big action set pieces that litter the picture. While Marshall tries his best to deliver thrills, many of the action sequences feel unmotivated and unnecessary. And frankly, Marshall trying his hardest is still no match for Verbinski, whose presence is sorely missed.
The movie scales back the amount of characters, and yet, there are still too many of them. Aside from Jack and Angelica, you've got Blackbeard, Barbossa, the Spanish, and even a love story between a priest and a mermaid (seriously). Gibbs (Kevin McNally) flounders his way through without much to do, and even Jack's dad (once again played by Keith Richards) pops in to deliver some exposition before going on his merry way. And the movie runs over two hours for no reason. Clearly this was one lesson that the series' writers have never learned. Less is more, especially when Captain Jack by himself delivers so much.
On Stranger Tides feels like a missed opportunity. The sense of light hearted fun from the first is long gone, replaced with a feeling of obligation, like the filmmakers have a checklist they have to attend to. That's not how you make a good movie, let alone a great one. Even worse, the stakes feel all wrong. Despite a nameless character being killed to show how merciless Blackbeard is, Ian McShane feels like he's sleepwalking through the film, making him no menace at all. Jack and Barbossa have both been softened. Neither of them actually kills anyone, and you never for a moment think that Jack is playing anyone for his own devious ends. Half the fun of Captain Jack is seeing how far he'll go to the edge before finally coming through in a pinch. Here, he's blunted, and becomes diminished as a character in the process.
Captain Jack is still a great character to watch, but On Stranger Tides proves that you can't coast on his charisma to cover for a lack of quality. The movie is at times downright boring, and that's simply unacceptable. While the last two films had their flaws, they were never boring. On Stranger Tides marks the moment that thePirates franchise became more concerned with filling quotas than providing a sharply constructed action experience. For all of Verbinski's excesses, at least his contributions were genuinely exciting. If this movie makes a mint, which I'm sure it will, I can only hope that Disney pushes for a large helping of inspiration for the inevitable fifth entry.