Tuesday, 24 May 2011

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' review:

"It's not the destination so much as the journey" Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow assures his weary audience somewhere near the end of this fourth installment of the lucrative 'Pirates' franchise. And he'd be right too, if the journey itself wasn't utterly tedious. I assume this line was written as a tacit meta-apology for the film's unabashed pursuit of 3D spectacle over anything resembling a plot or approaching character development. Although admittedly character development would have been difficult in this series, enamoured as it is with the exaggerated pantomime turn of its once-promising lead.

The story of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' can be summed up thus: the perpetually feisty Penelope Cruz recruits a reluctant Jack Sparrow into the service of her father Blackbeard (TV's Ian McShane) as they seek the Fountain of Youth. Jack was in possession of a map to the Fountain and knows the way. The map, however, is now in the hands of the British Navy, headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who has been charged, by Richard Griffiths' rotund King George II, with claiming the same prize in the name of the crown. Also in pursuit of the treasure are the Spaniards, of whom we see very little - presumably because their crew contains no name actors. It's all apparently inspired by Tim Powers' novel On Stranger Tides, but after a quick read of the Wikipedia plot summary it would seem that the only two base elements of the novel that survive the book's transition to film are Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth itself.

Gore Verbinski, director of the first three films, wisely opted out of this installment and was quickly replaced with Rob Marshall - whose 'Nine' is notable for being one of a small handful of films actually worse than 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End'. A former Broadway director, Marshall was never going to rein in the kitsch and, indeed, everything is big. Every single main character is introduced in shadow, or in a hood, or from behind so we can anticipate the exciting moment when we finally get to see Ian McShane or Geoffrey Rush's hairy face. In one of the film's five-thousand interminable sword fight sequences, Penelope Cruz is introduced as an exact double of Depp, before being revealed - at which point she becomes markedly shorter and somewhat chestier than the beloved wastrel.

In fairness, Cruz is an instantly appealing force in the movie, even if her Angelica fluctuates uneasily between being Jack's piratey equal and a helpless damsel. McShane bucks the franchise trend and bravely underplays Blackbeard, which is admirable but tends to get lost amongst all the mugging. Meanwhile Rush is easily the most engaging actor in the piece and in his performance lie the last vestiges of comedy left to the series. However, these actors are easily counterbalanced by Depp's increasingly charmless mincing and by the presence of Sam Claflin as a bare-chested missionary who has defied the odds to become thirteen times more grating than Orlando Bloom.

More perplexing though is the film's calculated exploitation of the '12A' certificate. Like the 'Transformers' movies before it, 'On Stranger Tides' is essentially a kids film front-loaded with sex. Depp and Cruz speak in naughty little double-entendres ("I support the missionary's position"; "how is it we can never meet without you pointing something at me?"), and Angelica's back story is that Sparrow took advantage of her in a Spanish convent, mistaking it for a brothel. Often they hold erotic conversations in a breathy hush, speaking of "writhing" and such. The film's lustful energy is also shamelessly channelled into its depiction of mermaids - shot with the exact same aesthetic as a Lynx deodorant advert as they tantalise us with their carefully concealed breasts. I'm not offended by this - it's just one small example of the tacky sexualisation of all things everywhere - I'm just confused by it. Didn't young boys and girls used to think kissing was icky? What I'd have made of this aged nine I cannot begin to imagine.

Whilst I'm sermonising, it's also odd that the film's only black "character" is a mindless, brutish zombie. I'm not saying this is a pre-meditated act of racism, but it's at least a bit careless (again, 'Transformers' comes to mind). Furthermore, the message of 'Pirates 4' (if it has one) seems to be that women are deceitful and the ruin of men. The mermaids here, as in folklore, delight in luring sailors to their deaths with their wiles, whilst Angelica (the film's only prominent female) is also a proficient liar: introduced concealing her identity and gender, and manipulating men throughout. Not that these politically dubious elements should necessarily prevent you from seeing this sea-faring adventure yarn - after all, if you took that kind of moralistic stand, how many Hollywood films would you be left with each year? No, in fact what should stop people from seeing 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is the fact that it's total and utter dross. And not fun dross, but deeply cynical dross. In 3D.

As 'Pirates' films go, it's not worse than the third one. But that will have to remain the highest praise the film can expect to receive from any but the most ardent 'Pirates' apologists. What started as a happy surprise and a breath of fresh air in 2003, has long since worn out its welcome. Nevertheless, prepare yourself for films 5, 6 and 7. Depp and co will always be willing to appear, as long as the "material" stays this good.

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is showing now and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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