Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

What it's about:

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back for another adventure; this time he finds himself embroiled in a race to find the fabled Fountain of Youth.

What we thought:

If you're wondering whether to bother with this, the latest instalment in the unstoppable Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, for some of you, it's actually pretty simple. If you liked the previous three films, you will almost definitely like this one. If you hated the last three, there is nothing here to change your mind. If you are like me, however, and enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean film but thought that its two follow-ups rather overstepped their mark, things are slightly more complicated. 

If nothing else, Pirates 4 is better than its two immediate predecessors simply by the virtue of it being a standalone adventure and, as such, is effectively half as long. It also has a story arc that does not require a mind map, a compass and a copy of The Beginners' Guide to Quantum Physics to understand. It also doesn't have the joy-sucking presences of Keira Knightley (who, since leaving this franchise behind her, has actually proven herself to be a very fine actress) and Orlando Bloom and is bolstered by three great performances. Geoffrey Rush is his typically wonderful self, while new addition, Penelope Cruz, throws herself into the role with gusto adding some much needed sex appeal along the way. And, of course, we have Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow but is significantly better here than he was in the previous two instalments – apparently a little bit of restraint actually does go a long way.

It is, in short, a snappier, funnier and grittier film than the two previous films, which may effectively have been called Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest At Worlds End. Chicago and Nine director Rob Marshall, who has picked up the reins from Gore Verbinski, the man responsible for helming the franchise 'til now, should certainly be commended for going some way towards fixing up the errors of his predecessor. Sadly, though, things are still very far from perfect.

Just because Pirates 4 is the shortest Pirates of the Caribbean film yet, doesn't change the fact that two and a quarter hours is still far too long for a silly pirate film based on a Disney theme-park ride. It may not be quite as unwieldy as that which came before but it is still a bloated mess with too many characters, too many sub-plots and, incredibly, too many action scenes.

Ian McShane, for example, might be an acclaimed actor but his Blackbeard, the villain of the piece, is grossly underwritten and feels mostly extraneous. Also, somewhere around the start of the second hour, you might start to miss Bloom and Knightley because the romantic sub-plot that develops between a mermaid and a young priest makes the Bloom/ Knightley puke-fest look like the tear-drenched love-child of Casablanca and Romeo and Juliet. It's especially stupid because the film already has a much more interesting and engaging romance – or, at least, sexual tension – between Cruz and Depp's characters.

It also doesn't really work as an effective action adventure film. The search for the Fountain of Youth kept on reminding me of the search for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but, needless to say, this film always landed up looking second best. The plot progresses exactly as you think it would with no real surprises to speak of: essentially moving from long periods of plot exposition straight into one of the film's many underwhelming action set-pieces.

Rather than feeling like natural outgrowths of the story and conflicts between the characters, the action scenes come across as the director yielding to some ridiculous formula of unveiling a new, unspeakably long and uninspired swashbuckle sequence every ten minutes. These are action scenes that are woefully lacking in any sense of peril, excitement or invention – simply coming across as tired and half-hearted.
It also certainly doesn't help that the film is so darkly shot. I simply fail to understand the thought process that decided that what a supposedly jolly pirate romp needed was a monochromatic colour palette and a aura of grey gloominess that makes even the supposedly glorious Fountain of Youth look positively muddy. And that's before the totally unnecessary 3D dulls and darkens everything even further.     

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn't going to sway fans or haters of the series but, for all that this fourth instalment gets right, the franchise has a long way to go before convincing the rest of us that it ever needed to go beyond its opening act.