Livin' la Aqua Vita
Hello, and welcome to what promises to be a new and possibly very regular feature entitled Oh God, Not Another One. Our first subject for appraisal is Rob Marshall's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the latest iteration of Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer's sea-going cash-cow. This installment has what I expect you'd call added interest in that it's possibly the first film to be based on both a theme-park ride and an award-nominated fantasy novel (Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides, obviously enough).
Actually, I don't want to diss the Pirates franchise too much, as while none of the films in this series have particularly (oh dear) floated my boat, they do represent a significant achievement. Not too long ago the pirate movie had a terrible reputation, mainly due to massively expensive flops like Polanski's Pirates and Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island - the received wisdom was that you were more likely to make a profit by putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff than by doing this kind of film. I suppose the Pirates series must have redeemed the genre a little, but it's interesting that there don't seem to have been any attempts to cash in on their popularity. They do operate in a very specific niche indeed, after all.
As you could probably have guessed, this movie is not really set in the Caribbean and features no actual piracy, although if we're talking crimes it is quite murderously long. This time it all kicks off with Jack Sparrow (Sir Ian McKellen - no, only joking, it's still Johnny Depp) arriving in London, drawn by rumours of an impostor recruiting a crew in his name. Apprehended by the authorities he's dragged before the king (Richard Griffiths, briefly) and informed that the dastardly Spanish have learned of the existence of the Fountain of Youth, and they'd quite like him to help the British get there first. The King has already persuaded Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to help - who knows, maybe he's doing a little light speech-therapy on the side.
Sparrow is not that interested until he tracks down his lookalike. It all turns out to be part of a plan by his old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who's also after the Fountain as she believes supernatural longevity is necessary if her father is to find redemption. As he is Blackbeard, infamous sorcerer-pirate and the most feared man alive (funny how his name name never came up in the previous three movies - hey ho), she may have a point. So off everyone sets in various vessels in search of a list of plot coupons they will need to use the power of the Fountain, the first item in question being a tear shed by a mermaid...
By the time a film series hits part four things are usually looking pretty grim, as I mentioned when discussing Fast Five. That said, my expectations for this movie were a little higher than they might have been. I've always found the Pirates movies slightly mechanical and less involving than they could be, but redeemed by Johnny Depp's heroically off-the-wall performances and Hans Zimmer's ebullient score. This time around, with the departure of Keira Knightley to be a serious actress, and Orlando Bloom to... er... I'll get back to you on that one, the omens seemed to suggest we'd be getting a lot more of the good stuff.
Depp's performance is this movie's sole reason for existence, and - to be fair to him - the great man definitely seems to break a sweat in his attempts to justify his enormous paycheck. You would have thought that all the eye-rolling and twitching and slightly fey running about would seem a bit mechanical and overfamiliar by now, but it's still remarkably fresh and funny, even when Depp's given some rather corny old jokes to deliver.
That said, the film does seem to meander along very much like Sparrow himself: every other character's involvement seems to be better motivated than his. The script also doesn't seem certain exactly who he is - the first film suggested that Depp's performance is just that, a facade put on by Sparrow himself to make others underestimate him. There are hints of that here - in one scene he surreptitiously organises the elements of a ridiculously complex escape plan without anyone around him noticing, while other moments see the mask dropping and him showing genuine emotion - but at others he seems to be just who he appears to be, a sort of zen-master of drunken serendipity.
The film-makers themselves seem to have been a little concerned that you could have too much of a good thing, and that people who went to the others in order to see Keira K and Landy Bloom would want something along those lines in this one too. To this end, they have smuggled an equally vapid and uninvolving romance into this one, between characters played by Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey. I say smuggled because neither of these guys is really a major character or shows up until well into the film. And they're not really introduced as people of significance, but gradually they start having more and more lines, until there are whole scenes just about them. This is actually quite confusing, not to mention annoying. Very much like their predecessors in the roles of 'crossed young lovers', the moments of their physical closeness put one ineluctably in mind of furniture being stacked, though younger people who are still unsure of the correct use of their brain cells may find this whole subplot less irksome.
Someone actually says in this film, 'it's about the journey rather than the destination' and this is a wise thought to bear in mind should you go to see it. Certainly the climax is slightly misjudged - I was left with a definite sense of '...oh, is it finished now?' - and the events leading up to it are not quite as memorable or as cleverly-plotted as in some of the earlier films. One gets a sense of inspiration running dry and the scriptwriters desperately groping about for new nautically-flavoured fantasy elements to include - this time around there are mermaids, and some zombies, and a voodoo pirate ship, but none of it's as visually striking as before. Ian McShane is okay as the bad guy, as is Cruz as the love interest, but still, but still...
I should say that I did enjoy this film and laugh a lot throughout it - it's certainly better than At World's End, and not far off Dead Man's Chest in quality, either - but perhaps that's my problem with this whole series. I enjoy the dark fantasy elements of these movies very much, and the production values are excellent - but every time the film starts to generate any kind of atmosphere, along comes a performance that's either crushingly bland or incredibly knowing and arch, and suddenly it feels like I'm watching a different kind of film entirely.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides passed the time pleasantly enough, but its strongest elements - Depp's comedy performance and the fantastical atmosphere - constantly seemed to be pulling it in opposite directions, so it never really seemed to gel as a cohesive film. I should say this was basically exactly how I felt after watching all the others, so this movie is really very much business as usual. 'This isn't over!' somebody shouts at Johnny Depp at one point in the film, and on the strength of this film I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were right.