The first three films in the Pirates franchise were marketed as a trilogy, but of course Disney couldn't just let the now-iconic character of Captain Jack Sparrow die, so here we are four years after At World's End with the fourth installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which promises to be the start of a new trilogy, or at least Disney hopes that's the case. However, this isn't the same old Pirates film with an overly complicated plot and a run time that would make even the most seasoned of moviegoers antsy; with Gore Verbinski out, director Rob Marshall breathes new life into the franchise with a streamlined story that's easier to follow than the hectic delirium of the originals.
This time around, On Stranger Tides sends Jack in search of the famed Fountain of Youth, tacking between his old foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who's now working as a privateer for King George, and the dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who has a zombie crew and a fetching pirate daughter named Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a woman from Jack's past -- and perhaps the only woman he ever truly loved. During the journey, Jack must face new challenges like mermaids, poisoned darts, and the Spanish Navy in order to reach the fabled fountain.
But just finding the fountain isn't enough. Several artifacts must first be acquired: two silver chalices from Ponce de León's ship and the tear of a mermaid. The mermaid in question falls in love with the kindly cleric Philip, played by newcomer Sam Claflin; however, these aren't your old run-of-the-mill enchanted Ariel-inspired mermaids -- these are beautiful, bewitching mermaids who seduce men before turning into carnivorous monsters who eat their prey alive. This is one of the most subversive sequences in the film and one of the best ideas that screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio -- who draw on Tim Powers' novel On Stranger Tides -- injected into the script.
Ian McShane fits his pirate boots brilliantly with a mixture of playfulness and dangerous unpredictability as Blackbeard. Visually, one of the best things in the movie is Blackbeard's ship, with its blood-stained sails and fire-breathing cannons -- just the thing you need to punctuate the already-treacherous nature of McShane's character. The cunning and voluptuous Angelica, played by Penélope Cruz, still holds a grudge against Jack for taking her away from a convent and leading her onto the swashbuckling path. They fight, they flirt, they sort of make out, but their relationship feels schematic and unconvincing, and her character is so ill-defined that there's no romantic tension between the pair.
Really, though, at this point the Pirates franchise is all about Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, the Keith Richards-inspired scallywag who always seems to oscillate between being drunk or hungover. When the original Pirates appeared eight years ago, Jack wasn't the movie's main character; the films were mostly about Orlando Bloom's and Keira Knightley's characters (who thankfully are absent from this latest incarnation) -- which allowed Depp the freedom to strut around mocking the stodgy, unironic bigness of the blockbusters in which he found himself. But Jack's the main event now, and while Depp manages to get his laughs, his act is starting to grow old. Still, he's like the party guest you can always count on to be the most entertaining, and he delivers.
Fans of the franchise will appreciate cameos by Keith Richards, who returns as Jack's dad, Captain Teague, and a surprising and completely random cameo by Dame Judi Dench as a noblewoman who appears in an elaborate escape scene in London featuring swordplay, a wagon filled with flaming coal, and Jack swinging from a chandelier. The movie may not have all of the charm and vigor of the original Pirates film, but it's certainly worlds better than the last two installments thanks to the new energy Marshall brings to the table.