Repetitious, tedious, and pretty much joyless, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides strains to reboot what was until now a generally fun and always profitable cinematic enterprise. It's a competent, energetic action romp, played with as much vigor as Johnny Depp can deliver, with a new spitfire (Penélope Cruz) as his female foil.
But the romping has lost much of its bounce. New director Rob Marshall (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) serves up an endless succession of occasionally inventive escapes that Capt. Jack Sparrow and his stunt team must manage. The longer this long movie goes on, the more wearying than thrilling they become.
And Stranger Tides is dark, literally. Please, Mr. Marshall, sir, can you spare a few more footcandles of light?
Capt. Jack is in London, effecting the escape of his trusty first mate (Kevin McNally) from hanging, when he hears of a ship setting off for a favorite quarry of Jack's: the Fountain of Youth. A couple of escapes, a carriage-roof chase through the streets and a sword fight or two later, he's on board the ship of Edward Teach, "the pirate all pirates fear" — Blackbeard.
Ian McShane is well-cast as the infamous cutthroat, catching the baleful stare behind that alarming beard, which smoked thanks to embers of slowmatch the pirate stuck in its curls before his public appearances. On his bewitched ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, Blackbeard commands with sorcery and terror.
"If I don't kill a man every now and then, they forget who I am," he growls.
He needs Jack's help to find the fountain because the Spanish (a seriously undeveloped menace) want to get there first. As does Jack's old frenemy, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Barbossa has become a privateer in the Crown's employ, and the change in his dress and demeanor (Jack calls him "Hector") renders the character about as threatening as a poodle.
That's a bit of an issue because, despite the fearful buildup for Blackbeard in the film's first third and Teach's grand entrance, he too grows less menacing with each appearance. You reduce your villain's stature, the movie suffers.
Depp has been given to playing Capt. Jack as ever more impish, an Errol Flynn-meets-Liberace spin on the character. The Oscar-winning Cruz, as pirate girl Angelica, an ex-girlfriend, makes cracks about his manhood and crosses swords with him as equals.
But they do a cute tango of seduction in one scene, and their relationship has a fiery snap, at times.
On Stranger Tides isn't remotely as strange as the last Pirates, 2007's At World's End. It's a pedestrian-looking film of extreme closeups, of shadows masking the many special effects.
It's also a movie with mermaids, one of whom (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) falls, without much prompting, for the "missionary" (Sam Claflin) trapped on board ship with Blackbeard. There's a third Oscar winner (joining Rush and Cruz) who has a tiny but funny cameo. And you have to stay after the credits to get a hint of what is to come.
Because whatever adventures and fresh supporting characters these Caribbean pirates plow through in two hours and almost 20 minutes, there's always the promise — or threat — of more.