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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011)
Early on in Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the third sequel in this notoriously bloated franchise, there’s an unexpectedly delightful cameo from Judi Dench. Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp who relies upon his familiar shtick, swings from a castle into a passing carriage, only to land on the lap of Ms. Dench, who had a regrettable supporting turn in Marshall’s last film, Nine. The quick gag that follows, involving whispered innuendo and petty larceny, is more sprightly and witty than anything in this entire franchise, and it raises hopes that On Stranger Tides might forgo the bombastic explosions and physical humor that defined the series in favor of something a bit subtler. Such hopes are met halfway, I suppose. While this fourth Pirates movie certainly has less in the way of cacophonous ship battles and supernatural bluster, it still is a far cry from highlighting quick wits and athletic derring-do of bygone pirate films over the latest in visual effects and the most familiar of buffoonery.
Because the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has Depp’s Sparrow as its lead character, it inevitably veers toward silliness. His unhinged performance unmoors the other characters from any seriousness they might otherwise muster, giving the films an energy that they might be able to sustain were they each not two and a half hours long. While the first three entries in this series felt somewhat imbalanced due to the presence of two earnest lovers, played by the doe-eyed Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, here these characters have been jettisoned, and the tone made more consistent. What results is a structure that feels closer to that of a caper film. A number of unlikeable teams are seen racing off in pursuit of the fabled fountain of youth. The sneakiest will inevitably win. While the concept of Cannonball Run as a pirate movie might initially seem mismatched, it seems the appropriate amount of plot for the mad, mad world that Marshall is trying to create.
A summer blockbuster like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides generally lives or dies by its set pieces. Here, things are toned down in scale, versus the other entries in the series, but the film ends up mildly more successful than its predecessors for it. A reasonably exciting mermaid attack is the most memorable action scene here, with much of the screen time spent sketching out the characters’ romantic attraction or plots for revenge. That this is expected to take the place of pyrotechnics is shocking and likely to alienate audiences looking for a mindless thrill, but by the time Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides lumbered to the end of its 137 minutes, I was thankful for the change. Saying that less is more with reference to a film that vomits so much over its audience is absurd yet oddly appropriate here.