The fourth step in a franchise can often be the sticking point, especially when that franchise has taken a break of sorts after the third installment – just ask fans of Die Hard, Indiana Jones, Alien and Scream. The issues are generally two-fold, as the filmmakers are charged with somehow making a high-numbered sequel that retains the spirit of the original, at the same time as offering something new and compelling enough to entice new fans. Add to that the fact that that gap generally means that the fourth installment has to make enough money to turn heads, and certainly a lot more than would traditionally accepted of a third sequel, and you have a minefield of potential pitfalls.

But surely Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would be okay? Regardless of the critical reaction, the film will make an obscene amount of money, so that won’t be an issue, but the pre-release noises coming from the Mouse House, and director Rob Marshall actually seemed to suggest that this particular number 4 was going to address the problems of the preceding two sequels, which for fans and filmmakers alike set some exciting bells ringing.

So swelled by that excitement, I donned a pair of the Palais’ frankly ridiculous 3D glasses and settled in to watch a rum and gunpowder caper.Pirates purists will probably love On Stranger Tides, because it sticks to the formula, allowing Johnny Depp to run amok around scenes as Jack Sparrow, while dialing up the sword fights and set-pieces with gay abandon and re-introducing a core of key POTC characters, including Gibbs, Barbossa, and Captain Teague,  to ensure that fans get the pleasure and comfort of recognition. And indeed there are some things to be admired, but this is far from the best sequel thanks to some sloppy scripting and some distinct directing problems.

Rob Marshall always seemed something of an odd choice to helm when Gore Verbinski hung up his hat, and initial suspicions will be confirmed, chiefly because of the lackluster manner in which he leads the action here. His shot composition is not up to scratch in a few glaring places, and his editing technique leaves a lot to be desired: in conjunction those two lead to tepid fight sequences, as the audience isn’t invited into the action the same way as in Verbinski’s films. The decision to go with 3D likewise was always going to be controversial in some quarters, and in final evaluation it doesn’t offer anything to the atmosphere of the film at all, instead it simply makes everything darker, and ironically manages to rob crucial scenes of depth.

It is plainly obvious that Marshall and company have decided to cut the complexity that threatened to shanghai numbers two and three, with a far more streamlined plot that effectively boils down to Jack racing to the Fountain of Youth, after being forced to become a crew member on the infamous pirate Blackbeard’s ship, with Barbossa captaining a rival ship, and a fleet of Spanish ships all hell-bent on that magical prize. Unfortunately, the streamlining has gone too far, and the plot is little more than a flimsy premise to drive some actions, and a conceit that allows a series of expensive looking set pieces to take place. Don’t get me wrong, the set pieces are impressively put together, with Jack’s flight through London and the mermaid attack sequence in particular standing out for their scope and execution, but they can only grip the audience so much without the underlying appeal of a compelling and richly developed story-line. After all, Cutthroat Island had some impressive set-pieces did it not?

And even worse for some of those set-pieces is that the shtick of Jack’s ingenious eye for an escape route is beginning to wear somewhat thin here, despite being one of the most endearing points of the other films. One scene in particular proves the point: leading into the far superior chase through the streets of London during which Jack never sets a foot on the ground, is a sequence dedicated to his escape from the king’s palace, which feels just a little too farcical even in the context of his other daring exploits, and the stagedness of it seems somehow more cynical, where it was once admirable. It also doesn’t help that Rob Marshall’s direction is decidedly more low-key than Gore Verbinski’s was, and there is a far more restrained approach to the aesthetic, with the lavishness of sets and shots alike toned down here, which strips away some of the magic.

Even as a fan of the franchise, I am beginning to question how much continued enjoyment anyone can be having watching Johnny Depp mince around as Jack Sparrow. The act is all well and good, and he is sticking “on-brand” with the usual slurs, colorful swagger and disarming charm, but, the character simply cannot grow at all. Depp is shackled by the very precise demands of the role, and in some respect he is a victim of his own success: the fans want to see Sparrow be Sparrow, and any deviation would spell probable financial woe at the box office; but then film fans will by now be feeling, as I did, that the character has had his time, and that the lack of deviation is what is holding the film back. ‘Tis a mighty quandary, indeed.

Some of the new characters work a lot better than others: with Stephen Graham’s Scrum working reasonably well to fill the void left by McKenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg’s departures to other waters, and Penelope Cruz almost copes with the thankless task of trying to add a roguish feminine balance to Depp’s rampant scene-swallowing antics, before he trumps her entirely (as is the unavoidable nature of his character). Sam Claflin and the incredibly named Astrid Berges-Frisbey do very well to fight off the shadows of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, and have infinitely more chemistry and believability than the departed pair too, even if they are somewhat underused (surely they’ll feature in number 5 more heavily)Elsewhere, Ian McShane is excellent as Blackbeard, but only in terms of what he is given to do: the script seems content to use him sparingly, presumably for impact, but then what he says and does on-screen is mostly underwhelming against the potential of both the actor and the character. That seems to be the case for all of the new faces, as the promise of new focus points is ultimately replaced by a return to the Jack Sparrow show.

There is definitely some fun to be had here, and to a certain extent the film succeeds as a brainless rum and gunpowder caper, but you simply cannot shake the feeling that it’s all a little empty thanks to the inadequacies of the script, and if they had concentrated slightly more on Ian McShane’s Blackbeard, it could have come closer to rivaling the original film in the franchise. As it is, it sits somewhere around the same enjoyment level as POTC: Dead Man’s Chest, failing ultimately to quite live up to its potential.

The Upside: There is the same level of enjoyment in seeing familiar characters in familiar situations as there was in the first two sequels, and the new characters do add a little extra interest.

The Downside: It’s too flat to really capture the imagination, and sadly for this franchise, familiarity definitely breeds contempt in light of the problems with the script and direction.

Remember to follow me on Twitter for more on-site observations. You can also check out my other filmic writings at ObsessedWithFilm.com.

Cannes coverage continues…


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