Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush
First the good news about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The fourth instalment of the impossibly profitable Johnny Depp franchise - US$2.7 billion (Dh9.9bn) at the box office and counting - features a genuinely beguiling subplot about a righteous yet swoonsomely handsome missionary from 18th-century England called Philip (Sam Claflin) who falls deeply in love with a mysterious mermaid from somewhere below the south Atlantic called Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). However, standing in the way of their true love's dream are several crucial dramatic impediments. First is Philip's evil overlord, the pirate captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane – chewing every line), who harbours a devious plan to capture Syrena and use her magic tears as part of a ceremony that will ignite the powers of the legendary fountain of youth.
The second impediment is the fact that Philip is a man of the cloth. And finally, there's the not entirely irrelevant fact that Syrena is of a different species to Philip. Stick these all together and you get a storyline that's bursting with genuine, dramatic conflict and palpable emotional tension, and one that brings the screen to life every time it's given the right breathing space (which isn't very often).
The rest of the movie, unfortunately, is business as usual for a scattershot series that had clearly run out of original story ideas by the time it hit the achingly overlong 140th minute of the very first screen adventure. Which means that, in this instalment, Johnny Depp once again steps on to the screen, mugging and grinning, as Captain Jack Sparrow, everyone's favourite cockney pirate, complete with signature kohl eyes, thick, red headscarf and hit'n'miss Tommy Cooper delivery. Sparrow begins the movie by boldly escaping from a packed London courthouse, then by boldly escaping from the king's guards, and then by boldly escaping from a lethal sword fight in an east end pub, thanks to the assistance of a former paramour called Angelica (Penelope Cruz) – and all this before the plot has even begun? It's the sort of brash yet wearisome narrative padding that has become emblematic of the franchise.
When the plot eventually arrives, it pitches Depp on to the boat of the dread pirate Blackbeard, and into the heart of the latter's mission to locate the fountain of youth. Hot on his heels, naturally, is the equally determined Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, a veteran of two previous Pirates movies), followed by the entire Spanish navy. And to complicate matters further, there is Sparrow's increasingly passionate feelings for Angelica to contend with (although in this case, and considering that his actual chemistry with Cruz is about as sparky as a limp lettuce leaf, we'll have to take his word for it). The film, through the director Rob Marshall (Chicago), does snag some bonus points for turning its back on the gaudy CGI-overkill that defined the past two instalments - here, the visual effects are positively lo-fi, and include some pleasingly simple sequences, including Depp ascending through a waft of dry ice and into the fountain itself. But mostly the film is a disappointment. Except for the subplot, that is.