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Movie Review

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Depp’s the main event in 'Pirates': 3-D adds new dimension

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 19, 2011

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Because “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’’ was made with a chest of Disney doubloons and the might of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, it features the finest 3-D money can buy. None of this cut-rate post-production conversion junk; the extra-dimensionality of the latest “Pirates’’ feels thought out and even finely crafted, as if you were really in that summer-movie snow globe for the ride.

Of course, just to make sure we get our inflated ticket price’s worth, the movie spends much of the 137-minute running time throwing stuff at our heads. I kept a list, if only to pass the time: a wagonful of flaming coals, rolling barrels, spurting water, spurting wine, many swords, a voodoo doll in the shape of Johnny Depp, a human being in the shape of Johnny Depp. Everything but the script. In fairness, that might have passed by unnoticed.

To press the point, there is absolutely no need for a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean,’’ but here it is anyway, four years after the third film supposedly brought things to a close. It promises to be the start of a new trilogy, too, but one wonders how long a franchise this massive can run on iron-poor blood. “On Stranger Tides’’ gets the job done, but just barely, and without that extra dimension and an unforgettably spooky few scenes in the middle, it would be a paltry thing indeed.

There’s a new director at the helm. Rob Marshall (“Chicago’’) at least streamlines the story line so that it’s easier to follow than the hectic delirium of Gore Verbinski’s originals, but he’s working with only half the marbles. Missing from the new installment are Orlando Bloom’s dreamy Will Turner, Jack Davenport’s doughty Norrington, Tom Hollander’s villainous Beckett, comic beanpole Mackenzie Crook, and, most crucially, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, who by 2007’s “At World’s End’’ had assumed the mantle of the series’ central character.

But not its star. That would be Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, the project’s antic Puck. When the original “Pirates’’ appeared eight years ago, the shock was that an actor this serious could play it so lightly, swinging like a drunken cavalier from mast to rooftop to desert isle.

Because Jack wasn’t the movie’s main character, Depp was free to be the swash in its buckle, mocking the stodgy, unironic bigness of the blockbuster in which he found himself. No wonder the Disney executives got ulcers as they watched the first film’s rushes.

Well, Jack’s the main event now, and while Depp gets his laughs, the act is starting to pall. He’s like a party guest who has told the same joke too many times now; it’s a good joke, but you know the teller can do better. “On Stranger Tides’’ sends Jack in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth, tacking between his old foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who’s now working as a privateer for King George (a wonderfully hammy Richard Griffiths) and the dread pirate Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who has a zombie crew and a fetching pirate daughter named Angelica (Penélope Cruz). The underwritten script contorts itself to give Jack and Angelica a past romance, but while the two actors play pleasantly together, they never once strike a genuine spark.

That, in fact, is the primary problem with “On Stranger Tides’’: It’s a machine with no heart. At least until the midpoint, when Blackbeard’s ship pulls up in Whitecap Bay and sets a few crewmembers out as bait for the mermaids. (You need a mermaid’s tear to put in one of the chalices for the Fountain of Youth ritual and — oh, never mind.)

Eerily visualized and, even better, thrillingly original, this sequence carries a sensuous underwater dread as the mermaids surface, lovely young sirens with malicious intent. It’s like a shark attack with extra added hormones.

Out of this sexual horror rises a romance between a virginal captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and a young cleric (Sam Claflin) who’s aboard Barbossa’s ship only because the movie needs a straight man who looks great with his shirt off.

“On Stranger Tides’’ keeps cranking up the four-way contest of wills between Barbossa, Blackbeard, Jack, and Angelica, with the Spanish Armada tossed in as a palate cleanser, but you keep urging it back toward the scenes between the man of God and the lady of Fish, if only because their scenes are the only ones with any emotional content whatsoever.

Other characters rise to the surface like flotsam: Keith Richards in a nonsensical return appearance as Jack’s piratical dad, Judi Dench as a dowager whose carriage Jack briefly crashes.

Individual scenes of swordplay and rope-swinging have the necessary vigor, but the whole feels terribly forced, as if it’s marking time for . . . what? 3-D technology to improve to the point where it’s worth the extra four dollars? Depp to find his groove again? I never thought I’d miss the overstuffed craziness of Verbinski’s originals — the squiddly extras, the moments of sheer pop surrealism, the Kraken — but “On Stranger Tides’’ is like a familiar house where half the furniture has been sold off. Without the special glasses, you might not see it at all.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Written by: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, suggested by a novel

by Tim Powers

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Keith Richards

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordans 3-D IMAX Reading and Natick

Running time: 137 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality,

and innuendo)

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