When Johnny Depp first swaggered onto our screens as the roguish Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl, audiences had no idea that the film would spawn such a successful franchise, not to mention a new trend in fancy dress costumes.
Eight years, three films and over £1.6 billion later, Jack’s back in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, this time on a quest for the Fountain of Youth.
As we would expect, it’s not all plain sailing. King George II has employed the British navy and Jack’s old rival Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) to race Jack to the fountain, and beat the Spanish army in the process.
Jack must also face off against an ex-lover, the feisty Angelica, Blackbeard’s daughter. Blackbeard (Ian Mcshane) needs the fountain to escape his prophesied death at the hands of a one-legged man.
Director Rob Marshall (Nine, Chicago) seems to subscribe to the ‘More is More’ school of thought and adds voodoo, vampire mermaids and zombies to a plot already bursting at the seams. Perhaps he is trying to capitalise on the recent surge of supernatural in popular culture, as seen in The Walking Dead, True Blood and Twilight.
The result is a convoluted mess. The rushed pace is overwhelming and does not allow the audience time to absorb the relentless action or get to grips with the multitude of plot twists.
Moreover, in spite of impressive special effects and a talented cast, at times the film feels rather like a TV show reunion special, one which not everyone has bothered to attend.
Pirates absentees Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are among those sorely missed. Instead, the obligatory romance blossoms (unconvincingly) between the mermaid Syrena (model Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and the missionary Philip (Sam Claflin), a couple who communicate entirely by spouting clichés and pouting.
There are some glimpses of the old Pirates magic, most notably when the cast is allowed some room to breathe and to banter. The chemistry between Depp and Rush is always a delight to watch, as is a welcome appearance from Keith Richards as Jack’s father (“Look at me, Jackie. Does this face look like it’s been to the Fountain of Youth?”).
At other times, the rest of the cast seems woefully underused. McShane’s malevolent Blackbeard could have made a truly iconic villain given more screen time and a better script.
In the earlier films, directed by Gore Verbinski, the pirates were wise-cracking, swashbuckling anti-heroes, fighting against those who would take away their freedom. In the complex and confusing On Stranger Tides, however, it’s not always entirely clear who’s fighting who.
Verbinski combined action, horror and humour to brilliant effect in a way that Marshall has tried and failed to emulate. Unfortunately, On Stranger Tides cannot compete with its predecessors. The series has, perhaps predictably, lost much of its momentum and freshness, and with a new director at the helm, the franchise flounders.