19 May 2011

ON STRANGER TIDES- Pirates 4 Review

There's a strong argument, mostly being made by myself, that Pirates of the Caribbean- On Stranger Tides is the sequel we always should have had to the 2003 swashbuckler that started it all. I don't mean that it's the best sequel possible, but that it's following the formula of the Indiana Jones films by bringing back one or two characters from previous instalments and telling a new adventure, rather than going for cod-epic storytelling.

It's not completely without ties to the impenetrable mush of At World's End, as it picks up with Captain Jack Sparrow having seemingly given up on his search for the Fountain of Youth, on which we left him sailing into the sunset. As he arrives in England, it's revealed that an impostor is posing as Jack, with plans to recruit a crew and mount a search for the Fountain themselves. Jack is soon drawn into a race for eternal life, between a Spanish Armada, his old foe Captain Barbossa and the legendary Captain Blackbeard.

It's after watching this latest instalment that I realise I have a strange affinity with the series. The first one is unabashedly enjoyable, but there tends to be more debate on the quality of the two sequels, and with good reason. Heard of "Six Characters in Search of an Author"? The first three Pirates of the Caribbean films serve as "Three Films in Search of a Trilogy", with the convoluted ties to the first film and over-plotted action outright ruining the series for some point.

As for my own affinity, I don't dislike the series as certain other reviewers do. I recognise that At World's End is a load of bullshit, concerned with such contrived devices as "the ninth Piece of Eight" or whatever the hell that film was about, and that Dead Man's Chest didn't so much end as trail the third instalment. But on their own merits, I found things to enjoy in each of those movies. And so I suspect that while the consensus will be against On Stranger Tides, I found more to enjoy here than in the previous sequels.

That said, it still doesn't hold itself very well. It's a good half an hour shorter than the previous instalment, but that still makes it 137 minutes, when there's a much more enjoyable 100 minute film sitting within, waiting for an editor to piece it together. The action takes about 45 minutes to get going, and when it does, there's no real drive or thrust to the plot. My earlier comparison to Indy earlier on works here, as the hunt for the Fountain of Youth resembles the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at times, but while that film has one group of characters to root for, screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio plump for a sprawling cast. Again.

Another of the problems carried over from its immediate predecessors in the series is the lack of a villain. Geoffrey Rush is the best thing in this one, but his Captain Barbossa, so brilliant an antagonist on the first outing, has long since become more of an anti-hero. In this one, he's even a privateer for the English, albeit with ulterior motives. I suppose the de facto antagonist here is Blackbeard, played by an underused Ian McShane. As usual then, it resorts to having the characters argue a lot and double-cross one another.

Rob Marshall replaces Gore Verbinski in the director's chair, but it's Elliot and Rossio who need to be ushered out, because they just never seem to get to the point. For instance, there's a scene in which a character is forced to jump off a cliff, to an uncertain fate. Before that character eventually jumps, we have a refusal, some argument, emotional blackmail, a ridiculously redundant Russian Roulette set-up and a bit of hoodoo, before the character just jumps anyway. And don't get me started on Keith Richards.

They also seem to have no sense of timing, as writers. If you pay attention to the dialogue, you realise that the plot takes place over a fortnight. After a great opening sequence set in London, the progression of time is thus- one scene in daylight, and then an extended setpiece at night. Most of this movie takes place in the dark, which not only makes the sunny Caribbean settings pointless, but also probably makes for great viewing in super-dim 3D. I stuck with 2D, personally, though I concede I was sort of impressed by the 3D in the trailers for the film.

I enjoyed On Stranger Tides enough that I really want to say good things about it, so I shall. Johnny Depp shows no signs of getting bored in the lead role, and if you're not bored of him playing it either, he's still a lot of fun to watch as Captain Jack. Some of the action is a little repetitive, four films in, but there are two really good setpieces at the beginning and at the midpoint. I think I'd personally have opened the film on the latter, which is an excellently constructed scene that establishes the film's take on mermaids. Then again, I'd also have got it done in 100 minutes.

Pirates of the Caribbean- On Stranger Tides marks a partial return to the entertaining form of The Curse of the Black Pearl, but as with latter instalments, it is still slightly discordant. To refer to Pirandello again, it's like Six Subplots in Search of a Movie, because there's not much to the McGuffin that's supposed to actually unite the strands. I found it enjoyable, but it did string out my enjoyment across the laborious running time. For some, it will be a step too far, if your enjoyment has been strung out since the first film, but it's still a step in the right direction. Let's have a change in the writing department next time though.

Pirates of the Caribbean- On Stranger Tides is now showing in 2D and 3D at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Pirates of the Caribbean- On Stranger Tides, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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