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Coasting on Charm:

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz and Ian McShane

ARGHHH: Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz star in the fourth installment of the famed ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film series. Courtesy photo.

It’s hard to quantify the success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Monetarily, it’s easy: three films have grossed over $3 billion worldwide. A movie franchise based on a popular Disney World attraction somehow managed to become a cultural phenomenon, and propelled Johnny Depp into superstardom. Depp has achieved such a level of success that even when he stars in complete garbage, he comes out shining.

Case in point: “The Tourist.” Also starring Angelina Jolie, the movie was universally panned, loathed by audiences and critics, and yet managed to make $200 million, even garnering him a Golden Globe nomination. When failures still make hundreds of millions of dollars and get unwarranted award nominations, I’d say someone has achieved the highest level of celebrity. Depp can thank Captain Jack Sparrow.

Anybody walking into the downtown Port City Java knows what I’m talking about. For some reason there’s a portrait of Depp as Jack Sparrow behind the register. It’s been there as long as I can remember, a daily reminder of the significance of the series. Most people figured we’d seen the last of the old “Pirates” at the conclusion of the third installment. All the threads were wrapped up.

Then one day someone figured out there’s still a lot of money to be made. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer put together another “Pirates” film, allowing Depp to chew scenery, swordfight and act like a ponce. It would be easy to give a fourth film like “On Stranger Tides” a pass. There is not a prayer of this movie not delivering on its promise. It has pirates, swordfights, supernatural craziness and Johnny Depp in overacting overdrive.

Director Rob Marshall has shed some of the supporting cast in an effort to lighten the load. We lose the swashbuckling lovers, Will and Elizabeth (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly), and in their stead, we get a very temperamental Penélope Cruz. This might be the only time in history I ever say this, but I miss Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly.

The first three “Pirates” films had good chemistry, which seemed to borrow heavily from the Luke Skywalker/Princess Leia/Han Solo vibe. This time around it’s an all “Han Solo” affair. Cruz, while an able performer, doesn’t really bring much to life. She does a good job going toe-to-toe with Depp but only in a salsa dance kind of sexual tension.

The story centers around the legendary Fountain of Youth, a treasure being pursued by Captain Jack, his old nemesis Barbosa, the Spanish Armada, and the most feared pirate on the seven seas: Blackbeard (Ian McShane). All of them have a reason for seeking the fountain. Like all mysterious supernatural treasures, there are perils and mysteries that must be uncovered. Two chalices must be used, and one of them must contain a mermaid’s tears. Once the hurdles are established, we watch the motley crew go through a series of trials, tribulations and betrayals—none of which are particularly interesting. The entire concept of the Fountain of Youth seems convoluted and obtuse. There were moments that felt conceptually lifted from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

While I enjoyed the other “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, they were far from perfect. Still, there was a real effort to entertain. Director Rob Marshall delivers a very tepid cinematic experience. I’m not sure why the director of “Chicago” was tasked with launching the newest chapter in a thriving franchise. His sensibilities seem mismatched with the material. There are some interesting set pieces and a few fun moments, but the whole thing is kind of loud and lifeless.

Depp is pitch-perfect as Captain Jack Sparrow, but his performance here is like watching an aged rocker going through a greatest-hits set list. There’s still that glimmer of greatness but no new territory is traveled. If there’s any life left in this concept, it will take a much more talented filmmaker than Rob Marshall to bring it. There’s part of me that kind of respects the more “lo-fi” film he’s created. It’s not nearly the massive computer-generated spectacle of “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End,”  but something about this world works better with bombast. If ever there was an excuse to use every tool in the toolbox, it’s a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

It’s not all bad, just laughably average. Oddly enough, over four “Pirates” movies, the most developed character is Geoffrey Rush’s Barbosa. There’s more of a story arc for him than there is Captain Jack. The same seems to hold true for the earlier films where we learned a lot about Orlando Bloom’s character. The villains and supporting cast ultimately become more interesting because the only job for the main character is to drive the story forward with a wink and a smile. But you can only coast on charm for so long.

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