PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011) (***)
Following the bloated first two sequels in the PIRATES franchise, the fourth installment puts the ship back on course. The story rightfully puts Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow at the helm. The story throws many of the unneeded characters overboard and adds the right new shipmates to the crew. Penelope Cruz is the first mate the series needed for sure.
Rumors are spreading across London that Captain Jack is putting together a crew in search of the Fountain of Youth. Turns out that it’s an imposter, but Captain Jack actually does have a map to the famed waters. He’s not the only one in search. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, THE KING’S SPEECH) is now working for the crown and is sans one leg. Jack’s old flame Angelica (Cruz, VANILLA SKY) wants to find the healing waters in order to save her father, the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, TV’s DEADWOOD). There is also the Spaniard (Oscar Jaenada, THE LOSERS) who has his own agenda.
Now, no PIRATES film would be complete without elaborate escapes, daring swordfights, double crosses, magic and a young romance. This time the young romance plays second fiddle to the love-hate romance between Capt. Jack and Angelica. Depp and Cruz have great chemistry. Angelica is his equal in cunning and skill. The duo spar back and forth the entire film with great charm. Cruz has the right verve for the part and makes one believe no one else would be suited for the part, just like Depp does with Capt. Jack.
As for the young love, it also brings in a bit of the magic. Blackbeard has a young preacher Philip (Sam Claflin, TV’s THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH) prisoner aboard his ship. When the crew must capture a mermaid for her tears, he becomes the protector of Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a beautiful mermaid. And these Disney mermaids are a lot more aggressive than Ariel. It’s certainly not needed for the main story, but is woven into the main story and theme well.
At its core, the film is a story of redemption. It asks whether pirates can be saved. Capt. Jack is a scoundrel, but he isn’t a killer like Blackbeard. He might leave behind his first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally, VALKYRIE) to face the gallows, but he doesn’t feel joy in it. Angelica is looking to save her father’s life and soul, but can he be saved? In the mix with Jack and Blackbeard is Barbossa as well. He’s gone legit by sailing for the king, but can a pirate ever go legit, especially when he has revenge on his mind?
The story is best when illuminating this theme in its characters. This film seems small in comparison to the massive maelstrom, vision quest and various CG creatures of the previous two sequels. Blackbeard just doesn’t have the screen presence as Davy Jones I’m afraid. But the film is still infinitely more compelling because all the whiz bang boom means nothing without a consistent through line to pull us through.
This tale sets up a nice base for a new trilogy. The after credits sequence suggests where it might be going. But despite its potential for spinning off more adventures, the film works on its own as well. The story might rely on swashbuckling conventions like a jump from a waterfall and a Russian roulette scene, but it finds ways to use them to tell the internal story of Jack and the others. Capt. Jack being scared to jump off a cliff is not very interesting, because he has no personal connection to it. But the fact that he’s willing to do it so Angelica doesn’t have to makes it much more interesting. PIRATES 4 gets redemption because it attempts to get personal.