TOMMY Cooper in a bandana, Lovejoy with long hair and a bad attitude, Penelope Cruz in an eyeliners-at-dawn battle with Johnny Depp, and all the while that therapist bloke from The King’s Speech hobbles about on a peg leg.
It sounds like the kind of fevered imaginings that would beset a crew after a pint too many of sea water, but it is in fact the fourth instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean, a film that continues the franchise’s traditions of being a bum-numbing, brain-scrambling slog through territory already travelled.
The movie that began life as a theme park ride continues to chug ever onwards, throwing off criticism and taking on passengers. Maybe not all criticism. This time there is a welcome attempt to freshen things up, with the introduction of the first female pirate in Cruz, a trimming of the subplots, and a shorter running time. The last film, At World’s End, was 161 minutes, which is not so much a movie as the beginnings of a hostage situation. This one comes in at a mere 136 minutes.
On Stranger Tides begins its journey in London, where a Mr Jack Sparrow is up before the beak for crimes against brevity. Sorry, various dastardly deeds connected with him being a pirate. But lords a larky, who is this mysterious type on the bench, clad in a curly wig and looking for all the world like Lily Savage wrenched off the HRT? Could it be jumpin’ Jack Sparra, up to his old tricks?
It’s the first of several set pieces where you can see not only what’s coming next, but what’s coming 15 paces down the line. That said, it is the occasion for a thrillingly choreographed chase through London, complete with Judi Dench putting in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn as a grand lady who comes face to face with Jack. “Is that it?” says Dame Judi when the scene ends. Looks like it.
Keith Richards makes a similarly whistlestop appearance as Jack’s dad. Depp has said the Rolling Stone was a major inspiration for the character of the swashbuckling pirate, but as the films have progressed Depp seems to be channelling Tommy Cooper more than Keef. All that’s missing is a “Just like that” or two as he growls and grins his way through the lines. The famous swagger, meanwhile, has become almost a marionette walk. As for that three-inch thick make-up, he looks as though he’s on his way to a shift on a perfume counter.
For all those irritations, Depp remains the main reason to catch Pirates. He still has a gold-earring glint in his eye, and a lovely way with a droll line. Otherwise, the filmmakers are depending on some fresh blood to rejuvenate the franchise as Jack and competitors go in search of the Fountain of Youth.
Cruz looks the part as the female pirate who once loved and lost Jack, while Ian McShane, old Lovejoy himself, makes a devilishly good Blackbeard. Geoffrey Rush, last seen as a speech therapist to royalty in The King’s Speech, rolls his Rs in fine style as Captain Barbossa.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) is not quite done with the new characters, bringing in a young missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin), and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) called Syrena. The youngsters, far from adding zip, merely highlight how tired the formula has become, and how subplots drain the life from an action adventure.
Whenever Philip and Syrena appear on screen it’s a reminder that it will be even longer till we reach journey’s end. While the young pair are busy trading tender glances – he’s a man of God, she’s half-fish, they have lots to trade glances over – this viewer was left glancing tenderly at her watch and muttering, “Oh do get on with it.”
More patience would have been available had the film not settled into a fixed rhythm of sword fight, pause for plot, sword fight, plot, and so on. On and on it plods. An action adventure should be a soaraway affair, as in the first Pirates, not a stop, start slog.
Despite the new characters, Pirates goes through the same old motions, like some ultra-expensive pantomime with A-list stars. This film is the first in 3D, which does wonders for the already dazzling Hawaiian scenery, but otherwise doesn’t contribute much more to the experience.
It’s the curse of any film with a number after the title to suffer in comparison to what has gone before. Even more so when you get past the two mark and on to three and four. JJ Abrams rebooted Star Trek by going back to the characters’ younger days. That really was drinking from the fountain of youth. Perhaps Pirates can learn from that, not by deploying the same trick, but by blasting the whole adventure into space. At least the voyage would be fantastic.