Shot in 3-D, if that means anything to anybody anymore, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides comes with a misleading subtitle. Stranger tides? Stranger than what? What’s strange, or fresh, about any of the mechanical diversions offered here?
Director Rob Marshall’s chorus of yo-ho-hum does remind us that Johnny Depp really was a good time in the first and second Pirates movies. The new film reminds us also that, in general, projects undertaken by Jerry Bruckheimer are better with hotfoots such as Depp or Nicolas Cage or the next Depp or Cage on screen, messing around, subverting expectations.
But Pirates 4 reminds us of this without being any fun on its own. Marshall directs the seafaring traffic, taking over the hugely successful franchise from Gore Verbinski. Say what you will about the combined 127-hour running time of the first three, but Verbinski, particularly on the second picture, managed some creative and engaging set pieces (the giant hamster-wheel bit, for one). Dutifully, by contrast, Marshall must learn on the job, with plenty of tech support but not much on the page.
The legendary fountain of youth serves as the treasured booty this time, and its eternal riches are being pursued by an ever-morphing scrum of double-crossing weasels. They include Capt. Jack Sparrow, essayed, sashayed and flounced by Depp with occasional traces of the old panache; Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), representing the British navy; the Spanish fleet, whose very ships appear to snivel along with their sniveling crew; a rogue Spanish pirate (Penelope Cruz, dressed up and ready to play but stuck with a wanly conceived Puss in Boots Bickersons routine); and the ruthless Blackbeard (Ian McShane, who speaks as if being paid by the pause).
En route to the magical fountain over on Soundstage 19, the Pirates 4 gang runs into demon cannibal mermaids, among other things. I will astonish you with this fact: The film also contains many sword fights, frenzied in the extreme. Marshall shows little facility for mapping out and choreographing action in a satisfying way.
Depp isn’t slumming, but even in a product such as this, the quality of the script matters. Also, the proportions are off: People tend to forget that Depp wasn’t all over every scene in the first Pirates. The wastrel Sparrow ends up both overexploited and underpowered in this fourth outing.