***originally written 20 May 2011***
Allow me to share an indelible image from my childhood with you.
That’s the cover illustration from Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, a point and click computer game from the early 90s that ate at least one summer of my early-teen life. It took me a long time to finish, and once I had I played it out over and over again, reveling in the multiple choice tendrils of the narrative (the game is, in fact, deceptively linear). I loved that game. Still do. And when I heard that Ian McShane – iconic as saloon-owner Al Swearengen in Deadwood (best TV series of all time) – was to play Black Beard in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie for some reason that Monkey Island cover illustration popped into my head. I linked my hopes for this summer blockbuster with this sweet childhood nostalgia. On some level, I hoped that one would mirror the other.
Perhaps that explains, in part, my reaction to On Stranger Tides.
Lets get some other business out of the way before I go any further. I have not seen all the other Pirates movies. In fact, only the first one, which I thought was fantastic fun. Exactly what a summer blockbuster should be; inventive adventures with incredible characters and wonderful set pieces. I’ve heard differing levels of disappointment with the two sequels. I’d still like to give them a shot. I’d been reassured that seeing them is not a prerequisite for this fourth installment as very few of the recurring characters are employed here.
Indeed this is very much a Captain Jack Sparrow adventure, as it should be. Johnny Depp has carved out a movie icon with this role; an endearing inept mirror to the Indiana Joneses and James Bonds of adventure cinema, bumbling his way from island to island, armada to armada, ship to ship. It’s all charm, and the audience is happy to indulge him in it, and at least from On Stranger Tides, it looks as though he’s not tired with playing the fool just yet. Good. Blockbuster cinema needs it’s lovable heroes.
I will admit one of my main draws to this movie was the presence of Ian McShane as the villainous Black Beard, and he lends an almost stately gravitas to the role. For all the mystique of the character as a remorselessly evil individual… he’s really rather likable. McShane managing once again to make an essentially despicable individual into a sly rascal, albeit one looking sagely at the dwindling sand in the topper-most part of the hourglass. In fact, he’s far more preferable and interesting a character than his nemesis in this movie; Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, who comes off as limp, bland and tiresome throughout – three adjectives rarely used in connection with Rush.
So what’s the story this time? Well, it’s a race to find the fountain of youth. Sigh. That old mcguffin again. It’s a staple of adventure stories to be sure, but perhaps a little too obvious? A little too done-to-death? Am I being too picky here, wanting something a little more original? Okay, I hadn’t heard of the mermaid’s tear aspect before – you need one in order to complete the standard cryptic challenges that prove your worthiness – but still, it’s a tired storyline. So Blackbeard is after it’s powers because he believes he is fated to die soon, Barbossa’s after it because Blackbeard is, and Jack is after it because…. ummm…. it’s his movie? Doesn’t feel like quite enough of a drive. As a viewer, did I really care who got to it first? No.
Which brings me to that strange feeling I got whilst watching On Stranger Tides. The movie has action set-pieces. Sparrow’s escape from imprisonment in London at the film’s beginning is great fun. A sequence set inside a ship teetering on a high edge involving strategic balancing is also enjoyable if not exactly outstanding. There are other such moments of course peppered throughout. But as impressively as these moments are staged, they all feel curiously uninteresting. I felt disengaged for most of the movie’s runtime. On Stranger Tides has a lot of good tricks, but they’re not new tricks. In the end, the storyline feels like it was pre-populated from other blockbusters by a randomly-generating script-writing machine. This makes near 2 hours 20 minutes seem like a bigger ask than it is.
Also the new editions to the team are not quite as sensational as they could be. Penélope Cruz and Johnny Depp never quite convince as previous lovers torn apart by… whatever. Cruz is fine enough, but you sense she could have been given so much more. And then there’s Sam Clafin’s Philip; a character of such awful banality I actually bemoaned the lack of Orlando Bloom, and I never thought I’d do that. The film is most infuriating whenever Philip manages to survive something.
All of which makes On Stranger Tides a curious beast. Never actually bad, but never really surprising. Action packed, but not really thrilling. It’s solidly okay from start to finish. Much like Disney’s other recent success Tron Legacy, it fulfills the role it has been marketed for. Johnny Depp fans won’t be complaining. Call it a personal bias if you like, but I just keep coming back to my memories of Monkey Island 2, and the feeling that it all could’ve been so much more.