The Ancient Mariner, the Flying Dutchman, and the Wandering Jew may all have gotten a head start on Captain Jack Sparrow when it comes to interminable journeys. But since his launch in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack has made what feels like a substantial down payment on eternity. Through sheer force of will and paycheck, Johnny Depp's glam-rock pirate has defied the reboots and recastings that have upended such contemporaries as Spider-Man's Peter Parker, and has worn younger costars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom into piratical retirement. Among his fellow headliners, only Geoffrey Rush returns to sea for the franchise's fourth film, and he began the saga with the considerable advantage of already being dead. Increasingly it seems that, like Keith Richards—upon whom Depp famously based the character—Jack Sparrow may be with us always, a fading remnant made up of three parts irony to one part mascara.
This latest weary, wearisome installment bears the title Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is not strictly speaking accurate: for all its shortcomings, the movie's predecessor, Pirates of Etc., Etc.: At World's End, had moments of trippy grandeur—the morphing "stone crabs," the beached carcass of the Kraken—that the current film makes little effort to match. Indeed, in contrast to the wide narrative detours and convolutions of the first three films, On Stranger Tides is a relatively direct voyage from Point A to Point B.
The former is London, where Jack and longtime crewmate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) try to evade execution; the latter, Ponce de Leon's legendary Fountain of Youth (which, it must be noted, bears a striking resemblance to the Isla de Muerta treasure cavern of the first film). Along the way, new adversaries and inamoratas arrive to replace those who've fallen by the wayside. Chief among these are the comely Angelica (Penelope Cruz), long ago seduced and abandoned by Jack, and—you had to see this coming—Blackbeard the mystic pirate-lord (Ian McShane), who inherits the plot functions of Bill Nighy's Davey Jones, though not his tentacles.
Directed by Rob Marshall from a script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, On Stranger Tides is the shortest film of the series and the least expensive since the first. But as much as I would like to say that these reductions prove advantages, they do not. The second and third entrants in the franchise may have been bad, but they were ambitiously bad, displaying a commitment to their overwrought mythologies and interminable reversals—the ship-swappings, the hostage-takings—that few viewers could match. The new movie, by contrast, has the feel of a TV drama renewed for one season too many, a last, furtive run at the till before it closes for business.
In accordance with the prevailing dictate, the movie is presented in 3-D, and the muddy visuals (exacerbated by the fact that most of the scenes are set at night) present an object lesson in the drawbacks of the format. The plot, which involves a race to acquire the ingredients needed to perform a life-giving ritual at the Fountain, manages to be at once straightforward and plodding. Though there are smatterings of wit and whimsy (for instance, Jack's novel approach to untying himself from a palm tree), they show up with diminished frequency. And the one moment when the film offers a hint of genuine beauty and narrative tension—as the seductive song of a mermaid pulls sailors toward the waves—is exactly that: a moment, and one quickly undone by a rowdy bout of second-rate CGI action.
The aura of half-heartedness extends to the performances as well. Rush's portrayal of Jack's ally-antagonist Barbossa was far more lively back when the character was undead. And despite the evident talents of Cruz and McShane, their roles have a perfunctory quality, haphazardly introduced and never transcending the narrative slots into which they've been fitted. It's a rare film that can dim the fires of Cruz in particular, but On Stranger Tides insistently defies combustion.
As for Depp, his Captain Jack, initially a figure of such fierce originality, has inevitably succumbed to self-caricature. The mumbling, the mincing, the emphatic popping of dark-rimmed eyes—it's all acquired the air of vaudeville, or a rundown drag act. When, at the conclusion of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Jack muttered a few lines of "A Pirate's Life for Me," it was easy to share the sentiment. But when he makes the same case more directly at the conclusion of On Stranger Tides—"It's a pirate's life for me, savvy?"—it carries a whiff of desperation. Live whatever life you must, Jack Sparrow, but spare the rest of us.