Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow
Penélope Cruz as Angelica
Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa
Ian McShane as Blackbeard
Sam Claflin as Philip
Astrid Berges-Frisbey as Syrena
Kevin McNally as Gibbs
Richard Griffiths as King George II
Stephen Graham as Scrum
Gemma Ward as Tamara
Keith Richards as Captain Teague
Roger Allam as Henry Pelham
Óscar Jaenada as Spaniard
Greg Ellis as Lieutenant Theodore Groves
Directed by Rob Marshall
Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been captured and is about to go on trial for piracy when he learns someone has been impersonating him to put together a crew to find the Fountain of Youth. Once he finds that person, Sparrow is knocked out and brought aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge, captained by the evil pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) Jack has had relations with. The three of them begin a quest to find the Fountain, the two silver chalices of Ponce de Leon and a single mermaid's tear necessary for the ritual. At the same time, Sparrow's arch-rival Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has been sent by the King of England (Ricahrd Griffiths) to find the Fountain before the Spaniards.
There's a famous saying about giving the people what they want and with that in mind, the fourth installment of Jerry Bruckheimer's pirate adventure franchise, and the first in four years, puts Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow front and center for a new adventure that offers a self-contained story, a bunch of new characters, a couple of old standbys, but doesn't justify itself by barely trying to improve on what's come before.
The promise in the last scene of "At World's End" that we'd get Sparrow and Barbossa looking for the "Fountain of the Youth" is only partially true, because we only see Depp and Rush on-screen together once during the first 90 minutes before they make separate quests. It takes over 45 minutes before we're actually on that journey which gives you some idea how poorly-structured the film is, and it takes about that long to really get into the story.
The last couple of movies tended to hit a hurdle whenever Depp wasn't on screen, so one would think that focusing more on Sparrow would help this one, but that's not the case at all. It's hard not to think that Depp is coasting his way through the movie with this character who has become second-nature to him, but the Sparrow schtick was already getting tired in the previous movie so the movie starts getting dull whenever it's just Depp doing Sparrow.
Possibly realizing this, "On Stranger Tides" introduces a number of new characters. With Penelope Cruz's Angelica, Sparrow finally has a female counterpart who is his match, and while their meeting is somewhat awkward, she's easily the best female character they've introduced in the franchise; many of her scenes with Depp will make you want to see more of them together if they do another one. Even so, the best thing going for the movie is the introduction of Ian McShane's Blackbeard, a villainous pirate even more downright evil than Captain Davy Jones, something we see a number of times although he doesn't enter the picture for a good 45 minutes. It's not a big stretch for McShane, but he does make up for the fact that Geoffrey Rush seems to be coasting through the movie.
Then there are the mermaids, who are introduced in a glamorous and fantastical way before it turns into a scene straight out of "Piranha 3D," with them sporting fangs and attacking a group of pirates. If you're thinking of bringing small children to see this movie, you may want to be careful because those with delicate sensibilities may find this scene quite horrifying.
This eventually sets up a romance between the two newest actors, Sam Claflin as a missionary named Philip and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the mermaid Syrena. Since neither actor has the presence of an Orlando Bloom nor Keira Knightley, this romance seems more like a distraction than anything else. Since you never really care about either character, Syrena being in danger at the hands of Blackbeard does little to stir emotion. It does a little bit better introducing new pirates like Stephen's Graham Scrum who does bring something new to the mix, though not enough to want to see him back. Similarly, a cameo by Keith Richards as Jack's father feels more forced than welcome this time around.
For a story that's supposed to be simpler than the last few movies, this one is just as complicated and confusing as we cut back and forth between the separate journeys by Sparrow, Blackbeard and Angelica and Barbossa with Gibbs. The writing is decent if not spectacular, many of the jokes in the first half falling flat for one reason or another, but mainly because between Sparrow's drunken slur, the fast pace of the dialogue and all the heavy accents, it's hard to understand what anyone is saying.
Despite the weaker material, director Rob Marshall proves to be more than capable of taking the reins of the franchise from Gore Verbinski, even if other than a lot of big sword fights, there aren't that many huge FX pieces on the scale of The Kraken from the second movie. At times, it feels like they're trying too hard to replicate what made the first movie work so well by retreading familiar territory, whether it's a sword fight in the rafters or a scene where Jack is held at the point of two swords then they throw the swords up in the air. Sure, these could be seen as homages to earlier movies, but one would hope if Bruckheimer felt the need for a fourth film, a little more time would have been put into creating original fight sequences. This is clearly what separates a visionary like Verbinski and the "work-for-hire" nature of Marshall's direction.
Overall, the film look quite grand due to a fantastic production design team, but the problem with shooting digital is that it's lacking the magical fairy dust that shooting on film brings to a fantasy adventure like this. You can see every single detail and every pore, but because of that, it loses some of the naturalism to make it feel real. The scenes shot on soundstages feel like sets, and it doesn't do much to help the make-up on characters like Barbossa and Blackbeard. Since the film is shot in 3D, it's a lot more effective as a 3D film than other recent offerings, but it also takes the eyes quite some time to adjust to the sharpness of the image and for the brain to process all that added data.
Because we've seen three other movies of essentially the same thing, it's not hard to figure out where things are going from any given minute to the next, and ultimately, that makes for an adventure that's rarely very exciting.
The Bottom Line:
There's certainly stuff to enjoy about Captain Jack Sparrow's fourth go-round, but there's also stuff that feels so redundant and repetitive you wonder why bother making another "Pirates" movie if it's just going to be the same thing? In that sense, "On Stranger Tides" may be the dividing line between true fans and casual spectators, because only the former will be able to get excited about watching essentially the same thing we've seen three times before.
(Note: If you have the patience to sit through the extensive closing credits, there is another scene at the very end that teases what may happen in a fifth movie.)