It’s a funny thing about Johnny Depp. Perhaps more so than any other contemporary actor, people often view his presence in a movie as something of a mark of quality. I know many people who will see a film simply because he is the star, and until recently I might have understood why, even if I wouldn’t go quite that far myself. However, since around the time of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2002’s The Curse of the Black Pearl), I’ve found myself less and less impressed, or even interested at all, in almost anything he’s done. I’m always willing to give a talented actor, particularly one with as many great performances under his belt as Depp, a chance to surprise me, and win back some credibility, and it was with this mindset that I went into On Stranger Tides. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the latest entry in Disney’s swashbuckling franchise is by far the worst yet, and my personal admiration for Johnny Depp has reached a new low.
There’s no denying that the success of the first POTC film came as something of a shock to many people, both critically and commercially. Before it’s release, the idea of adapting a theme-park ride to film was seen as a creative death knell by an admittedly cynical part of the movie-going public (myself included), but the film defied critics to become one of the more memorable action-adventure blockbusters of the new millennium, and introduced Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, one of modern cinema’s most charming and appealing characters. On Stranger Tides works hard from the beginning to maintain the style and tone of the initial trilogy (all directed by Gore Verbinski), while simultaneously making it clear that this is a new story, albeit with a handful returning characters. The problem however, is that the new story is just too overloaded with new characters, vacuous action, and unnecessary, tedious subplots.
It’s very hard to gauge Captain Jack’s motives in this film. He swings wildly between the selfish yet loveable rogue from the earlier stories, to a newly considerate and almost emotional hero which doesn’t seem to fit at all. Jack was always the best element of the POTC franchise, and the unfortunate use of his character harms the movie irreparably. Geoffrey Rush returns also as Barbossa, alongside new characters Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and Blackbeard (Ian McShane), all talented actors who do their best with the poorly written dialogue, with McShane in particular standing out as a worthwhile addition to the cast. And then, there’s newcomers Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the missionary Philip and mermaid Syrena. Where do I start with these two…..
I guess there’s a feeling in Hollywood that every story needs a romantic element to reach a wider audience, and indeed Verbinski’s POTC films had the Will Turner/Elizabeth Swann thread successfully placed at the forefront of the narrative. Regrettably, new director Rob Marshall’s (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) attempt to replace Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley with these new young lovers is On Stranger Tides’ greatest flaw, and any time attention is paid to their story, what little amount of fun and humour the film has is sucked completely away. The story progression grinds to a halt as we’re subjected to this highly implausible and somewhat disturbing (beastiality anyone?) romantic plot between two characters who have no significant ties to Captain Jack, only one of which has any purpose in the movie at all. It’s all simply a ploy to appeal to the mythical ‘four quadrant’ audience, and in this case it is unforgivable.
That this movie will go on to make huge profits for Disney I have no doubt, and while there is a somewhat ambiguous ending in terms of further sequel prospects, I find it hard to believe that they will make the smart choice and retire Captain Jack and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise before further damage is done. This film is of such low quality that it has actually changed how I feel about the series as a whole, and the first film in particular (which I previously loved), but the most unfortunate casualty for me is Depp’s reputation. Hopefully he’ll think twice before applying the makeup and donning the dreadlocks again, and abandon this sinking ship.