The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film sets the franchise even with two good and two lousy.
Try as we might, we can't see any movie in a vacuum. This is most evident with a franchise film. Is there a way to critically approach Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tideswithout contextualizing it among the previous three films? Is there a point? This movie does not exist on its own, nor could it. To say, then, that On Stranger Tides is good "for aPirates film" is a reasonable analysis, even if film studies purists may turn their nose at such a turn of phrase.
But I think we all know what I mean. The Pirates franchise is a curious one, indeed. For something that has greatly altered what we wear on Halloween and what embarrassing uncles like to quote, it's been an intellectual property with a rather noticeable problem: only one of the three previous movies is any good. The third one, in fact, was bloody awful.
This fourth one is not. By Pirates standards it is streamlined and focused. Jack Sparrow is back and the lost love of his life (Penelope Cruz) needs him to help her find the Fountain of Youth for her father, Blackbeard. Captain Barbossa on the hunt, too, looking to avenge himself against Blackbeard, but also to make sure that the Spaniards don't get to the fountain first. Stand-ins for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are here, too, this time as a hunky minister and a mermaid.
The movie has serious problems. It thinks the comedy is far funnier than it is (the vamping is, at times, insufferable) and some of the action scenes feel undercooked (a chase through London could only be described as medium-speed.) Special effects-wise there's nothing that comes close to the breathtaking Davy Jones or his band of undead, barnacled seamen from Dead Man's Chest - a five year old movie. The big fountain set at the end may as well have had had a Stage 12 sign it looked so fake. (Points, though, for a very calculated homage to the Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever in the production design.)
And yet I found myself having what can only be described as "a good time at the movies." Johnny Depp ably buckles swash and, dammit, it's just fun to hear him "do the voice" again. Philosophically, I know this places me very much in the "part of the problem" camp with regard to Hollywood's addiction to sequels, but if I'm feeling this way, there's a good chance you'll feel this way, too.
Also, Fans of Deadwood will lose their sh*t at Ian McShane's hammy portrayal of Blackbeard. He's basically doing Al Swearingen in Disney drag and it is phenomenal. His big reveal and monologue probably wasn't meant to elicit laughter, but I couldn't help myself.
With the much blander Rob Marshall at the helm instead of the inspired and kinetic Gore Verbinski, this does, at times, feel like a movie on Prozac. It doesn't fall low, but neither does it reach highs. Even the most memorable scene - an attack by vicious mermaids - fails to completely wow. Despite its big 3D production, there's not much going on visually that you'll miss if you wait for this on Blu-ray. Unless you've got cash brimming from your pockets or absolutely have to get out of the house, I think this one will do much better with the reduced expectations of home viewing. Plus you can even dress up like a pirate and no one will notice.