Friday, May 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- Back to basics

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.20.11

Johnny Depp hasn't lost his mincing swagger, and that's great news for fans of this loopy series.

Depp's impeccably timed comic performance remains the best part of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. To watch him is to laugh helplessly: the hilariously trashy pirate's garb; the bemused double-takes; the gently slurred speech and overly precise movements of somebody who drained one too many tankards of rum; the marvelous little bits of physical business, as when he constantly brushes away imaginary lint (as if he could tell, with such filthy apparel?).
Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) manages an impressive escape from the
clutches of King George and his Royal Guards, by leaping from one moving
carriage to another, as scores of men pursue. Unfortunately, he's merely
running from the frying pan and directly into the fire: a reunion with an even
more dangerous figure from his past.

Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow — along with all the other characters in these films — may have forever corrupted my vision of a classic pirate. Not even this film's hissably malevolent villain — Ian McShane's Blackbeard — is a figure of genuine dread; he's too idiosyncratically amusing.

But if Depp's constancy is a blessing, the change-up behind the camera is a welcome relief. Director Gore Verbinski has departed for different shores, and I couldn't be happier; his three earlier films in this series suffered from unnecessary bloat. At just shy of three hours, the previous installment (At World's End) was ludicrously self-indulgent, thanks also to a scattershot script that made no sense whatsoever.

Series screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are back, but this film's new sheriff — replacement director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) — obviously brought some much-needed discipline to the process. The story is tighter, the ancillary characters are better defined, and the pacing and editing (David Brenner, Michael Kahn and Wyatt Smith) are vastly superior.

Mind you, we still never completely abandon the cheeky fact that this entire series is based on a Disneyland theme ride, and those who've ridden the boats past the Blue Bayou diners will recognize one more tableau lifted from that attraction's soggy depths. Which is as it should be.

Marshall's approach also is a bit different. He front-loads the film's two best action sequences into the first act, one of which — a swordfight between Jack and an as-yet-unidentified adversary, in the bowels of a tavern's storage room— is a real corker. The superbly staged skirmish reminded me of the two Richard Lester Three Musketeers movies, back in the 1970s: the same inventive choreography, the same hell-for-leather passion by the combatants.

Unfortunately, we don't get anything to equal these sequences, in acts two and three; that's somewhat disappointing.

As the story begins, Capt. Jack's fortunes have dwindled again; he lacks funds, a crew and a ship, his beloved Black Pearl having suffered an unknown fate. It's all he can do to prevent his loyal comrade, Gibbs (Kevin McNally), from getting his neck stretched ... and that rescue concludes with a fresh set of problems. A chance encounter with the woman Jack once loved and cheerfully corrupted — Penélope Cruz's Angelica — results in his being shanghaied onto a scary ship commandeered by no less than Blackbeard himself: not a man to be trifled with.

Angelica is First Mate on this vessel. And she also happens to be Blackbeard's daughter. Which Jack didn't know, back in the day.

Blackbeard, fearing imminent death at the hands of a "one-legged man," is determined to forestall this fate by finding the fabled Fountain of Youth. Jack knows a bit about its whereabouts; Angelica knows a bit about the ceremony required to make its magic work ... a ritual involving two silver goblets and a single mermaid's tear.

Jack's longtime "frenemy," meanwhile — the mildly pompous Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) — has been commissioned by King George, to find the same fountain. Finally, Spain also has mounted an expedition with the same goal in mind; it's therefore a three-way race to the finish.

Raise your hand, if you understand that everybody will wind up at the chosen spot simultaneously.

We've always had to coast through some sloppy details with these films, and this one's no different. The major problem, as usual, is the ill-defined use of supernatural abilities. Blackbeard, it turns out, is quite a dab hand at sorcery; he can control all the components of his ship — making ropes encircle hapless victims like boa constrictors, for example — with a vague wave of his sword. He's also quite effective with voodoo dolls, his deck sergeants are unkillable zombies, and his method of dealing with captured ships is novel, to say the least.

Oh yes, and his own ship can project massive gouts of flame from forward hatches.

One can't help but wonder, with all this power at his fingertips, why Blackbeard would be worried about anything ... or how anybody ever could hope to defeat him. But as usually is the case with such stories, Blackbeard's powers sorta-kinda fade, just when they need to. Handy, that.

Elliott and Rossio also have a rather novel take on mermaids; the delectable lovelies who swim into view — starting with the striking Gemma Ward — prove unexpectedly lethal. But this, too, gets out of hand; their sharp teeth and strong swimming abilities should have been enough, but they're also revealed to possess some sort of whip-like thingie — forgive me, but it looks like a frog's super-long tongue, as it nails a complacent bug — that can travel at least 30 feet, lightning-swift, to snare anybody who tries to flee. Again, such creatures would be unstoppable ... but, no, our heroes somehow prevail. Handy, that.

Fine, we'll tolerate such inconsistencies, if only to allow the story to move forward. But the one detail that nobody can swallow — not even Tuesday evening's sold-out preview audience, laden as it was with uber-fans — involves Jack's inventive means of freeing himself, when roped to a palm tree. That's one contrivance too many, which should be filed under, "Okay, just how stupid do you think we are?"

All that said, we don't really watch these films for plot logic; that ship sailed with the first installment, back in 2003. As I mentioned at the top of this review, these are character showcases, and all involved — starting with Depp, McShane, Rush and Cruz — deliver admirably. No offense intended to Keira Knightley, but Cruz is much more credible as a pirate-garbed femme fatale; she also adds a welcome note of smoldering sensuality. I'm willing to believe that Cruz's Angelica is enough of a spitfire to help control an all-male pirate crew, whereas Knightley never could sell that notion.

McShane's Blackbeard is suitably vile, the actor playing the part as if always surprised by the depth of his own depravity. Keith Richards returns briefly as Teague, Jack's beloved papa; Sam Claflin fulfills the "hunky young male" role vacated by Orlando Bloom. Robbie Kay makes a strong impression as a helpful cabin boy; Astrid Berges-Frisbey, lastly, is appropriately fetching as Syrena, the mermaid kidnapped and held by Blackbeard, in order to secure her tears. And for a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-her cameo, look quickly during the first chase, and you'll spot Judi Dench.

Hans Zimmer once again supplies a rich, rousing orchestral score, and gets plenty of use from the familiar Pirates main theme; the music always adds an appropriately lusty note to the action.

The production values are outstanding, and — happily — the CGI is used sparingly. This story's magical critters are limited to the aforementioned zombies and mermaids, and that's sufficient. No crazed, massive ocean whirlpools.

On the other hand — and at the risk of sounding like a broken record — this film's use of 3D is entirely superfluous, limited (it seems) to little more than occasional swords thrusting into the audience. While I'm pleased to note that "Pirates 4" was shot in digital 3D, rather than suffering a last-minute retrofit, the process still does no favors to the finished result. As I've noted before, 3D makes a film darker ... and this film, much of it taking place at night, or in close, gloomy quarters, is pretty dark to begin with. More than once, I removed the blasted 3D specs in order to better see what the heck was happening in a given scene.

That aside, this series' fans will find much to love here, so from that standpoint Marshall has done the job for which he was hired. And his film is approachable enough to engage first-timers, as well: in all respects, a well-crafted popcorn flick.

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