Early in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow must devise an escape from the heart of King George’s court. His throwaway rearrangement of an armchair, a stray napkin tossed on the floor, even a cream puff he skewers onto an overhead chandelier are mere components in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine designed to facilitate Sparrow’s flight. The scene pointedly seeks to answer the recurring question over Sparrow’s renowned unorthodoxy: “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?”
Unfortunately, the same query can rightly be asked about the Pirates of the Caribbean films themselves. Gore Verbinski’s original trilogy was successful, handsome and exhilarating, but also bloated with a convoluted mythos that saw Jack literally travel to hell and back. Under new helmsman Rob Marshall (Chicago; Nine), however, On Stranger Tides is a repetitious, plunder-by-numbers spectacle that breaks free from Verbinski’s muddled moorings only to find itself adrift in well-charted waters.
For this latest voyage, Jack and crew set sail in search of the Fountain of Youth, although part of the film’s problem is that you never really know why. Indeed, two previous Pirates films included pirates trying to free themselves from the shackles of the undead, so when did eternal life become such a valuable commodity?
Jack finds himself the prisoner of the villainous, legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose evil manifests itself mainly through natty facial hair and an ability to telepathically control his ship’s rigging. Blackbeard’s first mate and daughter is Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a Spanish sexpot Sparrow once corrupted who hopes to salvage her father’s wretched soul. In pursuit is Capt. Barbossa (reprised by Geoffrey Rush), now peg-legged and in service of His Majesty’s Royal Navy.
Little in On Stranger Tides makes sense, even for fantasy fiction. Barbossa’s ultimate revenge motive doesn’t square with why he gave chase to Jack and the Fountain in the first place. Minutes after Jack and Co. enter the Fountain’s sanctum through a subterranean portal, a group of Spaniards simply march in from beyond the mist. And, why doesn’t Blackbeard zombify his entire crew, not just just the officers, to achieve their compliance and stave off any pesky mutinies?
Of course, there is the obligatory swashbuckling and swordplay, interjected with a nocturnal attack by carnivorous mermaids that brings a sexy but sinister edge that On Stranger Tides needed more of. Instead, we get Philip (Sam Claflin), an indentured clergyman whose presence could have fostered some chatter about the dangers of playing God by cheating death but instead only serves as half of a puppy love romance with a captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).
During the nicely choreographed sword fight that accompanies Jack and Angelica’s first encounter in On Stranger Tides, Angelica is disguised as Jack Sparrow, fake mustache and all, in order to pass herself off as the infamous pirate. That such a beautiful woman could easily double as the foppish Jack is the crux of the joke. However, that their duel ends with Jack kissing his doppelganger is even more symbolic. For all his talk of “stirrings,” Jack Sparrow is in love with only one person: Jack Sparrow. Regrettably, it’s an infatuation that has spread to the caretakers of this nearly shipwrecked series.