By Matt Neufeld

There’s little doubt that when the final, official weekend box office tallies are counted on Tuesday, May 24, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” the fourth installment in this floundering, confounded series, will be on top, having likely de-throned the mighty “Thor” in the continual summer movie race to be the latest noisy, bombastic—and empty–blockbuster to lead the pack. What there actually is plenty of doubt about, though, is why studio Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Rob Marshall, who should know better, and the assorted galley of crew members continue to make these tired “Pirates” films—beyond the obvious answer of greed and money, of course. Because the “Pirates” series, matey, started to show its sea legs at the conclusion of the second film in the series. And, arguably, they could have even really stopped after the end of the first film and saved everyone a ton of money and future embarrassment.

“Tides” ably demonstrates that filmmakers can offer up some initially-inventive ideas only so often before the hull starts to leak and the entire ship sinks to the floor of the sea. “Pirates 4” simply ends up being what so many of today’s Hollywood blockbusters tend to be, time and again: what I call an average big film, or a big average film. They are obviously big films—the results of those millions spent on visual and special effects and make-up and elaborate sets and even-more elaborate action set pieces are clearly all up on the screen, along with the certified big stars with certified acting credentials—but they are also average films, despite the colorful bells and whistles. For no amount of bombast and noise and computer-generated special effects (or rollicking Hans Zimmer scores) can mask the shallowness and emptiness at the heart of a film that lacks overall originality, cleverness, story and character development, themes and messages, an original plot and story, or something very new to add to the treasure chest. Thus, this is what ails “Pirates 4.”

“Pirates 4” delivers the bombast, the chases, the effects, the elaborate sets, the explosions, the sword-fighting, the big-time actors—again, it’s all there, clearly seen—but the plot, alas and argh!, is very simplistic, and that tends to drag the action down. There’s little depth, it’s barely original on any level, there’s little suspense or tension–and it’s somewhat empty at the core. You can have all the bombast and colorful pirates and ships and swords and beautiful women parading around islands and boats and jungles (“Tides” was filmed in Hawaii, and some of the scenery is indeed breathtaking), but if the characters and their props are all running around in circles without a real involved story to anchor their journeys, the voyage just doesn’t take you very far, or very deep.

In “On Stranger Tides”—a good sub-title, yes, but a better one would have been “The Fountain of Youth,” since that’s the central plot point—Johnny Depp bravely and courageously returns and dons his dandy pirate-ware as Capt. Jack Sparrow—again, an original invention for the first two films, but already now a tired cartoon character in episodes 3 and 4. And the great and mighty Geoffrey Rush, fresh off his astounding turn in “The King’s Speech,” also bravely returns as the spooky, slightly scary pirate Barbossa, who, I’ll wager, is an even better invention than Depp’s swishy, drunken, meandering rock-and-roll Sparrow creation. They lead respective crews—well, Sparrow leads one crew along with the great pirate Blackbeard (the great Ian McShane, who completely steals the movie)—on a clumsy quest to find Ponce de Leon’s famed fountain of youth, which is located on some island somewhere. There’s also a gallant, well-dressed Spanish crew churning ahead on the same quest—blandly posing no real danger at any time. And one quirk, among several quirks, thrown into the mix is that the beautiful Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old friend or lover of Sparrow’s from his past—Sparrow isn’t quite clear on the details, as he filters everything through some drunken mist—is rolling along with Blackbeard’s crew, harboring an interesting secret and plot point of her own.

Barbossa, interestingly, has smoothly turned from a villain to a part of the king’s reach (sorry) and is actually working for the king and leading an official royal expedition on behalf of the king to find the fountain. Sparrow is helping Blackbeard in hopes of getting his beloved ship back, or saving his life, or getting rich—again, with Sparrow, it’s a bit of this and a bit of that. And there’s some on-again, off-again humorous romance and flirting between Sparrow and Angelica. There’s no Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom in this one—either their agents got smart, they had conflicting projects or Bruckheimer simply wanted to introduce some new pretty heartthrobs—but there is a slight, very slight, subplot with new heartthrobs. These would be Philip (Sam Claflin), a bit of an annoying religious member of Blackbeard’s crew, and Syrena (the stunningly beautiful newcomer Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who plays a haunting, conflicted mermaid that will remind you clearly of “Splash’s” Madison.

They all race onward to find the fountain of youth—but that’s really all there is to it. They face various dangers and obstacles and puzzles and maps and creatures along the way, but the plot really isn’t much more complicated than everyone racing to find the fountain. And you can see one particular plot line develop so clearly and so obviously in advance, it’s a wonder that it wasn’t advertised with little flashing sub-titles, an air-horn in the theater and huge billboards set up next to the screen. You can see what’s coming so many miles ahead, you don’t need maps or compasses or telescopes.

Depp is, yes, somewhat lively and funny and amazingly agile and youthful, Rush is just as fun, and you can see by the smart glint in his pirate eyes that he’s clearly relishing this role, and McShane clearly demonstrates real acting ability by stealing every scene with just an understated stare, glare, leer and grimace. His face hidden beneath a flowing evil mass of beard and his head covered by a classic pirate’s hat, his dark, gloomy, powerful eyes convey evil and badness, and his stealthy, calculated body movements suggest danger and plotting. It’s a great, subtle performance, and a great counter-balance to the more lively, animated performances of Depp and Rush. But while McShane and Rush are excellent, and while they steal the film, they can’t save it. Cruz is a beautiful girl, but she seems lost at sea here, and she doesn’t quite deliver one of her better performances. She needed to project something beyond a beautiful presence, but it doesn’t quite get there. She does deserve kudos, off-screen, though, for making much of this film while pregnant—and the filmmakers did have to be careful in this regard while filming. She handles the physicality of the role well, as do Depp and Rush and the others. Kudos to the able Kevin McNally as Gibbs, ably portraying the likable, trusty sidekick to Sparrow.

As the disparate groups soldier on to find the fountain, there’s intended or un-intended odes to classic Holy Grail-quest films (there’s even some supernatural chalices involved), classic pirate films, the “Raiders” series, and the classic old cliff-hangers and swashbucklers that inspired the first film in the first place. It’s nice to see these fun filmic elements, and the inclusion of some mermaids (always a classic pirate story element), and Blackbeard, and those great pirate ships, but in the end, all the bombast and noise tend to render a bit of motion sickness. As with any amusement park ride—which these types of summer popcorn fluff films tend to emulate, and the entire “Pirates” franchise was originally based on a Disney amusement park ride—sooner or later, you want to shout “stop” and get off.

With the “Pirates” series, as fun and inventive as the characters and locales and effects are—hundreds of special effects crew members work on these films, and they do deserve credit for their work—eventually, the ride needs to end, and the time needs to arrive when everyone has to stop the ride, get off, and embark on a new journey to new filmmaking lands.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (137 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.