Friday, May 20, 2011

Another "Pirates" movies sets sail

This edition of 'Pirates' doesn't sink, but it seldom soars.

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been plundering the box office for eight years, and the fourth edition – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – seems in no danger of sinking the franchise's mega-bucks ship.

The series’ fourth movie has enough swash and buckle to please hard-core fans. Johnny Depp serves up the usual mincing helping of Captain Jack Sparrow. Penelope Cruz adds a bit of steam, and a slew of mermaids turn up. When threatened, they snarl and sprout fangs. Hey, who said these movies had to make sense?

What this edition doesn’t have (aside from a feeling of sustained vigor) is Gore Verbinksi: The director of the previous Pirate movies has moved on. Verbinski recently directed the wildly inventive Rango, a gritty animated western that played with the genre in smart, knowing ways.

Verbinski, who surely needed a change of pace, has been replaced by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine). Marshall can’t duplicate the intricate action set pieces in which Verbinski helped to reinvent the lost art of visual comedy – not just physical comedy and pratfalls, but a comedy in which the camera and environment were full participants in a series of extended jokes.

Of course, this latest edition of Pirates has action (in largely superfluous 3-D at some locations), but it’s not inspired action. In fact, little about this edition of Pirates seems inspired: It’s an acceptable helping of a franchise: No more.

And Depp? Well, no amount of mascara can conceal the fact that he’s pretty much done everything he can with the role of Captain Jack. Still, if you're up for an encore, he's fine.

The plot finds a variety of folks scrambling to discover the legendary Foundation of Youth while the script figures out ways to add amusements, as well another pirate. A scowling Ian McShane portrays Captain Blackbeard.

For me, the movie never surpasses its opening. The story leaps into rollicking high gear as Captain Jack Sparrow escapes from a London jail. A Sparrow impostor is introduced, and Marshall makes room for a delightful cameo from Judi Dench and an amusingly bloated performance by Richard Griffiths as King George.

The movie’s opening – more or less a prologue – eventually gives way to the rest of the story, which is marred by stretches that drag and drone. Sparrow eventually finds himself aboard Captain Blackbeard’s ship along with Cruz’ Angelica, who says that she’s Blackbeard’s daughter. Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) also chases after the Fountain, as does a group of Spanish noblemen. Never mind why mermaids enter the story. They have a plot function, but their real purpose may have more to do with special effects than with dramatic necessity. Still, a beautiful mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) provides whatever soul the movie has.

I enjoyed listening to Rush and McShane deliver their lines with over-the-top relish, but by now, the franchise feels so familiar, I can’t watch without experiencing a degree of self-conscious detachment: “Oh,” I say to myself with no particular enthusaism, “This is where I’m supposed to be thrilled.” “Here’s where I should be laughing.” “And how long is this thing anyway?”

The answer: Two hours and 16 minutes – some of which proves to be fun, some not. I think we may have reached the point where audience anticipation and excitement has surpassed what the Pirate movies can deliver. Will that put a stop to them? I wouldn’t bet on it.

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