Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Making movies is a business. A collective artform, it requires the input of thousands of artisans and of course the investments of millions of dollars. The higher that latter figure goes, the greater the pressure is for a profit and the fewer risks get taken. Some years ago the major studios were bought up by multinational corporations run by hardcore business people who did not understand nor care about the model that had existed in Hollywood from the beginning, where a few hits every year would support a raft of moderately successful pictures and some dogs, which was where talent both in front of and behind the camera was developed. Production budgets ballooned and the stakes became astronomical. Now every movie needs to be number one on its opening weekend.

Sequels, while not a new phenomenon by any means, are very much a part of this. Nothing promises success like running the same play. Unfortunately, in most cases, the result is not repeated. Like in the old days of video tape, each generation of copies is degraded a little from the previous one. Godfather 2 and The Dark Knight are the only two exceptions that occur to me.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a polished gem of a movie, with interesting characters, menacing villains and Johnny Depp’s bold portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow, which was a revelation. The two sequels, made by the same team, got bogged down in metaphysical nonsense. And now we have On Stranger Tides, which strips away those pretensions and seeks to return to the lean plot lines of the first one.

Lightning hasn’t quite struck again but it is an improvement. On Stranger Tides finds Jack in a three way race to find the Fountain of Youth with old friend/enemy Barbossa, played by Geoffrey Rush, now a privateer working for the Crown, an official Spanish expedition, and Blackbeard, the pirate that every pirate fears. played by Ian McShane. With Blackbeard is Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz, a daughter that he has recently discovered. Jack has a history with her too. He deflowered her when he stumbled into a convent while looking for brothel. “An honest mistake,” he explains. What follows is the usual catalog of reversals, uneasy truces and betrayals.

Depp’s performance is up to his usual standards. The same can be said for Geoffrey Rush.  Penelope Cruz is sexy and untrustworthy as Angelica. The best job by a newcomer to the series was done by Ian McShane who plays Blackbeard with truly frightening quiet menace. He can stop a mutiny with just a glare from his pale dead eyes, an evil that cannot be persuaded or bargained with. McShane is a great underrated character actor.

There are a few problems. The film is too long and there are several obvious places where it could be cut. Plus there are a few holes in the plot and some unresolved threads but that may be because this was imagined as the first entry into a trilogy.

But the biggest problem is that I’m not sure that Jack Sparrow is a good viewpoint character. In the first film you see his eccentricity through the eyes of other, more normal characters and it’s wonderful. But nailing down his backstory and giving him prosaic motivations is inevitably going to lead to disappointment. Because the fun of having a character like Jack is wondering how he got that way. If we’re told, that explanation will inevitably pale in comparison to our half-baked speculations. I’m not sure I want Jack to be a fully developed character.

That’s where the economy of the movie business comes in. Johnny Depp is a star as well as a very good actor. The bottom line demands that he headline the film and get most of the good lines.

I just wonder when the corporations are going to learn that the best way to make a profit in this business is to make a good movie.

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