While the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise started with a fun, fresh take on a notoriously stale brand of box office poison, eight years and two directors later, the plastic surgery is finally catching up to it. Like the unintended consequences of a genie’s wish, the children’s adventure serial has achieved immortality at the cost of its integrity, which I don’t mean spiritually—this whole shebang is based on a roller coaster, after all—so much as physically: ON STRANGER TIDES is an unnaturally sagging, surgically distended mess. But beneath the aging collagen flab and melting silicone balloons is a fun next episode, and unlike most of today’s unfocused blockbusters, at least ON STRANGER TIDES tries to have a point beyond keeping its studio in the black.
You have to dig for the treasure, of course, which means somehow managing to stay awake throughout the endless reintroduction—something like five hours of catch-up while we politely wait for someone to remember this film is about the Fountain of Youth, not whatever Jack Sparrow and trusty sidekick Mr. Gibbs were up to since we saw them last—and the epilogue—yet another sequence that lets us know Jack is always climbing out of one hole and into another—and all the boring backstory between Jack and Penelope Cruz as his doppelganger. Memo to the writers of PIRATES V: NOBODY GIVES A SHIP ABOUT JACK SPARROW’S CHARACTER GROWTH! We come entirely for the kitsch: the campy take on pirate as swishy swashbuckler and accidental hero, the lush colonial tropics, the incorporation of seafaring iconography (here fulfilled by mermaids, peg-legs, voodoo, a ship in a bottle, Blackbeard, and the Fountain of Youth), the detailed art design that breaks free of pixel restraints and feels like a stroll through Adventureland, and preposterous action setpieces to rival the best adventure pulp. And, if there’s time, maybe some honest-to-goodness artistic influences, like Melville or Haggard. Say what you will about his point-and-click shooting and his sloppy action and his boring name (Team Gore!), Rob Marshall knows his way around kitsch. Cut off the fat, about a third of the film (and another third is people stabbing daggers into wood for emphasis), and ON STRANGER TIDES delivers a pretty fun little pirate tale.
The traces of Melville I spotted seem now like a sun-stroke mirage, but ON STRANGER TIDES unmistakably spins its quest for immortality into a classic take on redemption that extends naturally from the ongoing saga of a criminal and umbrellas nicely over every character in the film, from Ian McShane’s sadistic Blackbeard to Sam Claflin’s principled missionary, who keeps up a lively debate about selflessness throughout the picture. What’s more, the climax settles the plot and the theme with a classic bit of wisdom from Jack Sparrow, and, along with a fair amount of environmentalism and small-l libertarianism, ON STRANGER TIDES delivers this durable, if not new, belief in the capacity of everyone to renounce selfishness. It’s not Vaclav Havel’s oratory on global transcendentalism, but it’s something, and a beautiful, evergreen something, a current that works with the pulp elements to buoy this unwieldy ship from the black depths of the sea to somewhere closer to the middle.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said and recently joined Twitter @bnowalk. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.