CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011)
By Michael Arruda and John Harvey
(The Scene: The pirate port of Tortuga. Pirates are everywhere. Some are singing, others are drinking, while still others are battling each other with swords and knives. MICHAEL ARRUDA walks into a tavern just as pirate is stabbed in the gut beside him.)
MA: Well, we don’t call this column CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT for nothing! Today we’re reviewing the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, the fourth film in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise. L.L. Soares is off tonight, so I’ll be reviewing this one with John Harvey, as soon as I find out where he is.
PIRATE: Did ye say ye were looking for John Harvey?
MA: Yeah. Do you know where he is?
PIRATE: Aye-yi, I do. He be in shackles downstairs. Ye see, we don’t take too kindly to yer kind around here. Ye movie critics might give our movie a bad review. If I were ye, I wouldn’t stay in this town too long, if ye know what I mean.
MA: Well, you’re not me. (Suddenly, a sword is plunged into the pirate’s chest, and he falls to the ground with a groan.) And that’s a good thing. Anyway, I’d better rescue John.
(MA walks further into the tavern, looking for the stairs to the cellar. Instead, JOHN HARVEY is seated by the bar leading all the pirates in songs about dead men and bottles of rum.)
MA (to JH): They told me you were in shackles.
JH: Like that was going to happen. I just had to introduce these fellas to the joys of dark ale, and the rest was easy. Watch. (shouts) ANOTHER ROUND! (the pirates cheer).
MA: And who’s paying for all this?
JH: Nobody. It’s a pirate town. There’s no actual economy.
MA: But then, how—-? Never mind. Ready for our review?
JH: Never been readier, matey!
MA: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011) is the fourth film in the Disney PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, and I have to say at the outset, it felt like a fourth film in a series.
It opens with Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) rescuing his old friend Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the hangman’s noose. Their escape is short-lived, as they are quickly apprehended by the king’s men, but rather than sentenced to death, they are hired to help the king find the elusive Fountain of Youth (à la Ponce de Leon). Sparrow’s not interested in working for the king, and so he promptly escapes again and sets off to find the Fountain of Youth on his own.
His search reconnects him with a former love, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and her father, Blackbeard the Pirate (Ian McShane). Also searching for the fountain of youth is Sparrow’s former rival, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush.)
So, that’s the plot in a nutshell. Everyone is looking for the fountain of youth, which is all just an excuse to have Jack Sparrow up to his usual shenanigans, and for a bunch of pirates to strut their pirate stuff.
JH: That’s actually the plot of the first three films as well. Everybody’s after a MacGuffin … pirate wackiness ensues. The difference is that in the first movie this material was refreshingly new. I mean, certainly not groundbreaking, but truly fun. With this installment, it definitely feels like the Disney ride on which it’s based. We’re just seeing the same thing over and over again. And at a two-hour and seventeen minute run time, that’s a freakin’ long amusement park ride.
MA: I thought I would like this one, but frankly, it put me to sleep. There are lots of reasons why this film didn’t grab me.
(A huge, ZOMBIFIED PIRATE grabs Michael and throws him over his shoulder.)
ZOMBIE PIRATE: I’ll grab ye, matey! And take ye back to Blackbeard’s ship to swab the decks.
MA: I don’t think so.
(The ZOMBIE PIRATE runs out the door with Michael bouncing on his back.)
JH: I’m really unhappy that this review is going to take me away from the grog.
(JH grabs a cutlass and runs out the door. He chases the ZOMBIE PIRATE and MA through Tortuga, which basically looks like a cross between a frat party and a low-level riot.)
MA: This review is taking me places I didn’t expect. (shouting at a pursuing JH) Let’s look at the number one reason why I thought I would like this movie: Jack Sparrow. I love Johnny Depp’s performances as this character, and honestly, Depp’s great here again. The problem is, in spite of the many scenes Sparrow’s involved in, he doesn’t really have a whole lot to do. There are not a lot of scenes of clever humorous dialogue, and the action scenes involving Sparrow are nothing we haven’t seen before.
JH: Good point. Sparrow really isn’t driving the action here. Barbossa and Blackbeard do most of the heavy lifting in terms of plot, while Jack Sparrow capers around like a rodeo clown wearing guy-liner. He’s always been the class clown of pirates, but in the first movie (and perhaps the second) his buffoonery seemed to be more of a cover for a truly cunning and mercenary brigand. But in this movie? Not so much.
(The ZOMBIE PIRATE trips on a loose cobblestone and both he and MA tumble to the ground. The ZOMBIE PIRATE rises and draws his sword. JH draws his own sword and throws another cutlass to MA)
MA: Hey, where did you get another cutlass?
JH: Dude … pirate movie.
(MA nods and the swashbuckling sword fight begins.)
MA: One of the fun things about Sparrow in the first two movies was how he would get himself out of trouble, and how he was always playing both sides of the fence, and you never quite knew what he was up to or whose side he was actually on. You don’t have that in this movie. The character just isn’t as intriguing here. This is not Depp’s fault. He IS Jack Sparrow at this point, but it’s the writers fault for failing to put Sparrow in clever situations.
(John and Michael fight off several crushing blows, but get knocked into a nearby crowd of malingering pirates. That’s all they need to draw their cutlasses and join the fight.)
MA: PIRATES IV also falls into the “cookie cutter video game” type of movie, you know, that film where the movie almost plays like a video game. It’s high on action, low on story, and after a while, battle scenes one after another begin to grow tired and repetitive, which is the case here.
JH: You can also tell that the franchise is running out of steam because they’re tossing in trendy new accessories that do nothing for the film. Like zombie pirates. Blackbeard having zombie pirates on his ship felt like something that had been tossed into the script as the result of a producer’s note and nothing more. They’re not interesting, they don’t bring anything to the movie, and they don’t do anything we didn’t already see in PIRATES I from the original “undead” crew of the Black Pearl.
(The ZOMBIE PIRATE stops fighting, drops his sword, and a single tear weaves its way down his sore-crusted cheek. He hangs his head and shuffles away.)
JH: Sensitive zombie pirates? Who knew?
MA: I would have to agree with you. The zombie pirates were so ineffective I almost forgot they were even in the movie! They provided such little impact.
(The crowd of sword fighting pirates rush MA and JH and back them in to … a brothel.)
JH: That’s more like it.
(From a swinging chandelier, MA fights off ten pirates.)
MA: It’d be another story entirely if these action scenes were terrific. They’re not. They’re standard and ordinary, and so, we’re inundated with ho-hum average action scenes. You need something more, and director Rob Marshall doesn’t give anything more. For all the action scenes in this movie, I can’t think of one that I really liked. Marshall also directed the well-received CHICAGO (2002). I guess he should stick to musicals.
(MA looks down to check on JH and sees him standing in a desperate sword battle with ten … hookers.)
JH:…. Oh come on! Everybody hated SHOWGIRLS! (They scream in rage and charge at the bar. John grabs a rope, swings across the room, and lands on a staircase … to fight more pirates.) Anyway, it should be noted that director Gore Verbinski bailed on PIRATES IV. So did Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. The producers should perhaps note that the smarter rats are abandoning the ship.
(Somehow, Michael has found himself in a sword fight with JACK SPARROW himself.)
JH: Through the heart, Michael! It’s the only way we can stop PIRATES V!
JACK SPARROW: Listen mates, it’s not my fault PIRATES IV feels so worn out. I can only be as good as my writers. Savvy?
MA: Good point. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wrote the screenplay, and they also wrote the screenplays for the previous PIRATES movies. Going in, I thought this would be a good thing, but I didn’t find the writing in this one anywhere near as sharp as the first two movies (the third film was already growing tired), and the situations the characters found themselves in here just weren’t as interesting. Perhaps it’s time new writers took over?
JACK SPARROW: Every ship needs a new crew member every so often, my good man.
(JACK SPARROW takes three steps back, and drops through a trap door into the ocean.)
JH: I thought we were over dry land?
MA: Dude … pirate movie.
Anyhow, I can’t really fault the acting here, but then again, people don’t see PIRATES for the acting. In other words, the film is not going to be saved on the merits of its actors alone. That being said, Johnny Depp is terrific once again as Jack Sparrow. I really like this character. It’s just too bad he’s not in a better movie.
But the best performance in this one belongs to Ian McShane as Blackbeard. McShane is quite dark and evil as Blackbeard, and as movie villains go, he’s pretty effective. I wish this film had been more about Jack Sparrow vs. Blackbeard as opposed to some silly search for the Fountain of Youth.
JH: I’m in total agreement. McShane makes a fantastic pirate. I hope he gets to play one in a good pirate movie someday.
(The pirates force John and Michael through a set of doors and they find themselves in a room filled with huge barrels of gunpowder.)
JH: Okay, I know it’s a pirate movie. But a brothel with its own powder keg room? Really?
MA (spying receipt attached to keg): Here’s your answer. Someone sent the wrong order. (Hands JH receipt which reads “Blow Up Job Supplies.”)
Penelope Cruz is OK as Angelica, and she was sufficiently feisty, sexy, and tough, but strangely, I didn’t find much chemistry between her and Depp’s Sparrow. Geoffrey Rush is back once again as the pirate Barbossa, but I was disappointed with his character this time around. He wasn’t much of a threat to Jack Sparrow in this one.
JH: I agree with you completely about Rush. The reason that he wasn’t a threat was because both he and Sparrow had a common enemy, Blackbeard. They really weren’t at odds, but they also weren’t really allies. So, there’s no real tension between them. Penelope Cruz? … meh. For most of this film she did nothing and looked like a stripper that had fallen into a ditch. She was the perfunctory love interest and not much else.
MA: Astrid Berges-Frisbey made for a stunningly beautiful young mermaid Syrena, but aside from her beauty, the Syrena character didn’t do much for me.
The film once again boasted a lively music score by Hans Zimmer, but the best music here were all the same themes we heard in the previous films. Nothing new on the music front.
And that really is the main problem I had with the entire movie. It wasn’t anything new, and it seemed really, really tired to me. For me, the experience of watching PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES was like sitting down to watch the first Pirates movie, loving it, and then moving on to the second, enjoying that one too, and now it’s on to the third movie, and at this point things are starting to get repetitive and as a result less fun, and now here comes the fourth movie, and yep things are still repetitive, and now I’m getting flat out bored because I’ve seen all this before and it was much better the first time around. Get the idea? It just was tired.
Sure, one scene that was new and that I did enjoy was the mermaid scene, but even this wasn’t a complete success. The scene begins, and it’s full of atmosphere and some sensuality, as the mermaids are beautiful, but then, when they turn vicious and nasty, CGI takes over and the scene goes down the toilet.
And yes, PIRATES was in 3D, yet ANOTHER 3D movie! I thought the 3D looked terrific in scenes where we could see some depth, like the early scenes of the crowd assembling for the hanging, but other than this, I wasn’t impressed. For the majority of the movie I simply stopped noticing and forgot I was even watching the film in 3D until I threw my ticket stub away and was reminded that I had paid more money for the 3D ticket!
(Michael and a pirate clash swords and a spark arcs across the room. They both watch it land in a small pile of gunpowder on top of the largest keg.)
MA: Uh oh.
(The massive explosion sends Michael, John, and dozens of sooty pirates flying high into the air. As luck would have it, John and Michael share a similar trajectory.)
JH: I totally agree about the 3D! Like THOR, there was no really good reason for this movie to be in 3D, except that it soaked me for an extra $5.
MA: And even though PIRATES IV was rated PG-13, it really seemed aimed at younger audiences, more so than the first couple of movies.
(Michael and John land in a crowd of people. Though the impact should have killed them, some unfortunate soul cushioned their fall. As they roll off, we see L.L. SOARES lying on the ground with two cutlasses in his chest.
LS: You scalawags! Is it really going to be like this every time you two review a movie?
JH: (helping LS up) It’s alright. Didn’t you hear the man? It’s a PG-13 film. You’ve been stabbed twice in the chest, but you won’t die, or even bleed.
LS: No blood? What a rip-off!
JH: But there’s booze, and lots of it. Let’s get some grog!
MA: Hold on. We need to finish up this review.
So, all in all, while the entire package for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES isn’t bad, in that it’s technically well-made and anchored by some pretty strong actors, I just couldn’t get all that into it, as I found it tired, repetitive, and not at all captivating. I could have fallen asleep.
I give it two knives.
JH: This franchise has fallen so far from the first movie, that I think I liked it a little less than you. I give it 1.5 knives. There, now we can get that grog.
(Michael, John, and L.L, with two swords still protruding from his chest, walk back into the pirate town.)
– END –
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and John D., Harvey
Michael Arruda gives PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES – 2 knives
John Harvey gives PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES – one and a half knives