Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

A Pirate's Life for You?

It's a small miracle we're four films into this franchise. I'm sure I'm not the only one who had written off the original PotC - surely a film based on a theme park ride could only be doomed to failure (a hypothesis lent some credence after the failure of The Haunted Mansion). Yet few films have surprised so delightfully as The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was ridiculous fun altogether - all doubts evaporated as Captain Jack Sparrow arrived on screen atop a sinking boat. Tightly choreographed fights, a wicked sense of humour and a light-hearted plot made it one of the most engaging contemporary blockbusters. Unfortunately, no-one involved seemed to understand why, and the franchise promptly blew its load. Like the Matrix before it, the two sequels (made together) felt bloated, confusing and - let's be honest - shit. The plot was close to indecipherable, focusing on the dull trials and tribulations of Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom instead of the endeavours of franchise hero Johnny Depp. Hell, even when Depp was on screen, the writers and director Gore Verbinski barely knew what to do. By the over CGIed climax of At World's End, Pirates of the Caribbean had become just another lazy big budget blockbuster - far from the playfulness that made the original so compelling.

Disney seem to have taken some of the criticism on board, and in many ways On Stranger Tides is an improvement over the last two clusterfucks. Bloom and Knightley and many other superfluous cast members have walked the plank - their absence is to be welcomed. Original director Gore Verbinski has been sent to Davy Jone's Locker too, replaced by Rob Marshall of Chicago fame. Depp is once again at the helm casting wise - Sparrow is very much the captain of this vessel (I'll lay off the pirate talk soon). A few cast members return - Geoffrey Rush as the once antagonist and now reluctant Sparrow ally Barbossa, and first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) pops up from time to time. Keith Richards, thankfully, gets a very small and less obnoxious cameo this time around, and is gone as quickly as he appeared. They're joined by new faces - most notably Penelope Cruz as pirate and ex-Sparrow conquest Angelica, and Ian McShane as Blackbeard. If it seems like they've trimmed the fat only to then add some more, it's not exactly right. While some of the additions are pointless (more on that in a paragraph or two), for the most part the story is more coherent and focused.

The story? It, unlike the previous films, is relatively easy to synopsise. Jack Sparrow is looking for the Fountain of Youth. So's Barbossa, working for the British Crown this time around. Sparrow unwittingly teams up with Angelica on the dastardly Blackbeard's vessel, and is forced to lead the ship towards the Fountain. Along the way, they have to pick up a mermaid's tear and two chalices for some sort of ritual at said Fountain, all the while racing Barbossa and a Spanish armada determined to find the location themselves.

It's a plot that at least makes sense, and that's a big improvement. It flows jauntily - almost too jauntily, the first act moving perhaps a bit too swiftly as it establishes the major players. There's some very enjoyable setpieces and chases moving things along though; including a frantic one in London that features an unexpected cameo from a well known British acting veteran. The second half, in comparison, feels stretched. Despite more action sequences - most of which remain good fun, such as an enjoyable bit with coconut trees, and an intense battle in a bay - the film seems to spend a lot of time on unnecessary complications and redundant subplots. A main offender is a very silly series of scenes focusing on an enslaved priest (Sam Claflin) who takes pity on an even more enslaved mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). It goes nowhere, and could easily have been trimmed to have a more consistent pace. One is unpleasantly reminded of the Bloom / Knightley dullness as the subplot quickly becomes trite and utterly pointless.

Other changes, though, are for the better. Penelope Cruz is a welcome addition as the feisty Angelica, and Ian McShane crafts a menacing antagonist as Blackbeard. Also nice to see This Is England's Stephen Graham in a minor role as one of Blackbeard's crew. The major improvement is less of a reliance on computer generated imagery - it's still here, but joyfully there are no over CGIed characters clogging up screen time like Bill Nighy's character in the last two films. The setpieces are more physical, the settings - mostly - more grounded. It's a welcome step back. Unfortunately, the one major concession to modern technology is the addition of an increasingly useless third dimension. It starts well - there's an awesome fog effect at the very beginning. Things quickly go downhill though, especially when you realise that the vast majority of this film takes place at night. It's a very, very dark film as is - the addition of 3D glasses only darkens the image further. It's frustrating: yet another example of 3D adding nothing of note to the experience, and instead having a negative effect. If you can see this without the need for glasses, do.

Otherwise, there's little to surprise here. Depp's performance now lacks the shock factor that initially made Jack Sparrow such a memorable creation, but he gets a fair share of witty lines and pleasantly sloppy action scenes here. The rest of the returning cast are grand too, especially a playful Rush. It's certainly an improvement over the last two films, yet there's still the sense this series has failed to advance from the stellar first sailing. The soundtrack is still epic, the plot's coherent, Sparrow's still a unique protagonist, and the sense of fun is back. But that was all there first time around. On Stranger Tides is a pleasant diversion, even if it overstays its welcome over a 130 minute length. It's the best sequel, new director Rob Marshall seemingly understanding why the first was so well received. It's still a distant second in franchise terms though. A fifth and sixth Pirates of the Caribbean are in the works - they'll need to explore much stranger tides to warrant a return to a series that has long risked over-exposure.

Look, I got through the whole review without saying Yarr!


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