About fifteen minutes into the latest PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie, Dame Judi Dench - her ear be-slobbered by Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow - asks "Is that all?" I felt very much the same way as I waded through this over-stuffed and yet ultimately vacuous blockbuster. For let us be clear: this is an absolutely terrible movie. Derivative, muddled and, sin of all sins, dull. I walked out after 90 minutes, leaving a good 45 minutes of the movie left to run. Still, not to worry. No doubt the shameless hacks chez Bruckheimer are penning episodes 5 asnd 6 of this lucrative franchise as we speak.
So, what it all about, Alfie? Three ships are sailing to South America to find the Fountain of Youth (TM). One ship contains Spaniards, trying to capture the elixir for their king. (We don't hear much more about them.) The second ship contains Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who has swapped piracy for privateering - the only credible bit of character development in the film - and an interesting analogy for the way in which this franchise has sold-out from camp farce to clunking establishment milk-cow. The final ship contains Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane, presumably cast because he is the only working actor more wrinkled than Keith Richards), Blackbeard's daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and Captain Jack Sparrow himself. The movie sees these crews assembled, reach land in South America, do battle with some cannibalistic mermaids, and then set off over land to find the fountain. That's the point at which I left.
I left because it had become painfully clear that ON STRANGER TIDES was suffering from two structural problems that were not going to be resolved by simply hanging about for another forty five minutes. First up, the movie commits the cardinal sin of subverting the very formula that made it successful! In the first flick, which I rather liked, the prevailing atmosphere was "camp family fun"! We had pretty young lovers to root for, a little bit of spookiness, and every now and then a bit of naughtiness in the form of Captain Jack Sparrow - a pirate so effete and ineffectual he was a walking spoof of the pirate movie genre. By contrast, in ON STRANGER TIDES, Sparrow is front and centre throughout, rather than being used as comic relief. His presence tires - he has become the establishment - in fact, he's rather good at getting out of scrapes even if all the set-piece fight scenes are lifted straight out of Indiana Jones or earlier PIRATES films. Worst of all, the camp Jack Sparrow has to sustain the main love story, with a smouldering Angelica, utterly at odds with his camp style. All of this leaves Geoffrey Rush's Barbosa as by far the most interesting, and certainly the only entertaining, figure on screen.
The second big problem is the direction. Rob Marshall is, simply put, a terrible director. And here, I am looking to his previous films too - CHICAGO, NINE and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. Marshall seems to direct by throwing everything at the kitchen wall - more characters, more plot, over-loaded production design, more angles, more cuts, more orchestration (Hans Zimmer particularly irritating here). The editing style is the biggest culprit here, especially in the set-pieces. Marshall doesn't seem to be able to trust the action itself - the choreography (ironic given his background) to be interesting enough to hold our attention. So he cuts, cuts, cuts, all the time holding the camera so close to the action that I wanted to pull back for breath. Take for example an early scene where Sparrow is dancing on top of the King's dinner table and then swings from chandeliers. Why not just let the camera sit back and see his quick, deft, steps across the table? The whole thing smacked of complete lack of confidence in the material.
Of course, added to these two big structural problems, there are many minor irritations. The cavalier hijacking of the Indiana Jones format. The way in which the hero and heroine conveniently happen upon trap-doors. The fact that the producers evidently thought - "you know, those vampire movies are making a bunch of money - let's get some hot teenage girls and give them vampire teeth!". Worst of all, the screenwriters actually gave us a love story between a priest and a mermaid. I have seen anything as crass since the notorious soap opera Sunset Beach had the Father Fit storyline. Weak.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES is on global release.
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