First, the good news about this fourth visit to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides: Slinky-hipped pirate Jack Sparrow dominates; the insipid lovers (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly) have been dispensed with; there's less CGI; and it's shorter than the interminable At World's End, though not by much.
Our adventure gets off to a lively start, with Sparrow (Johnny Depp) washed up in London. He spars with the king (an amusing Richard Griffiths) and his old nemesis, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush); evades the law; grabs a quick drink with his dear old, disappearing drunkard dad; and tracks down a pesky Jack Sparrow impersonator in a tavern backroom. ("You stole me and I'm here to take myself back," he warns.)
The other Sparrow turns out to be Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old love, who, along with her just-discovered pirate dad, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), is searching for the fountain of youth. (There's enough relationship dysfunction here for POC5: Aboard the SS Jerry Springer.)
But with all parties -- plus some stray Spaniards -- now racing to tap the fountain, Stranger Tides soon turns dull. The narrative lacks an easy flow, and sputters along with halting breaks for bantering, special-effects or an action sequence. These elements, combined with lively acting and pretty scenery/cool sets, should be the Pirates winning formula. But here, under the direction of Rob Marshall, the pieces never gel into an entertaining whole.
You can't fault these performers: Depp owns Sparrow and Rush is a deliciously cranky foil. McShane starts strong -- his entrance suggests his hard-eyed Al Swearingen has re-located from Deadwood to the high seas -- but the script leaves him high and dry.
Nearly all the conflict in this outing is human-to-human, except for ... um ... deadly mermaids. These scaly beauties don't just beguile and draw sailors into the deep; the fishy gals have fangs and violently attack boaters much like those flying Asian carp. (Technically, they're bare-breasted, but tastefully shot. Take note if that's a deal-breaker.)
On-screen trickery may be amusing, but don't get rooked at the ticket counter and pony up for the 3-D glasses. The extra dimension only occasionally manifests, and the glasses will make this perplexingly dimly lit film look even murkier. (Since when is 18th-century London brighter than the tropics?)
It was inevitable that the bean-counters in Hollywood would return to this highly profitable franchise (and if you sit through the endless credits, there's a ready set-up for Part 5). But the concept is played out, the magic now more forced than fun. At one point, Sparrows burbles, "Who is to say I won't live forever?" Oh, please don't.
Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush
In 3-D in select theaters