Unearned Treasure

The new 'Pirates of the Caribbean' is lifeless—but that's not stopping it from bringing in the bucks

A few weeks ago, Michael Bolton joined Andy Samberg and Lonely Island for an SNL Digital Short called "Jack Sparrow." Bolton kept interrupting a hip-hop song with obsessive verses about Johnny Depp's character from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It was funny, catchy and a nice primer for the latest chapter in the tale of the infamous pirate who thinks he's a member of the Rolling Stones.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn't half as entertaining as the Bolton-Samberg mash-up. While not as awful as the second film in the series, it pales in comparison to the first and third chapters, and is basically an elaborate excuse for Mr. Depp to cash a check bigger than God's own money clip. (We all know God's got a mighty big roll.)

Confession time: I've grown tired of Depp's pirate shtick, so this movie already had a strike against it with me. The teeth, the swaying, the mumbling, the stupid head wrap ... I'm pretty much done with this crap. I want to see Depp back in some of those daring projects that made him Depp, and not this cookie-cutter garbage.

The best moment in On Stranger Tides doesn't even include Depp. There's a scary mermaid sequence that scores points stylistically and has some chills. Most of the time when Depp is onscreen, he's just going back to the well, slurring his dialogue and thinking he's far more amusing than he actually is.

The plotting involves some nonsense with the Fountain of Youth. Sparrow winds up on the ship of the legendary Blackbeard (Ian McShane) as they try to beat a bunch of regal Spaniards to the fountain. The trip includes a dull romantic tease involving Blackbeard's alleged daughter, Angelica (Penélope Cruz). Angelica is to Jack Sparrow what Marion was to Indiana Jones in Raiders: He had a fling with her when she was young, and he left her, even though he really, really liked her, blah, blah, blah.

As for Blackbeard, he's a far-less-imposing villainous character than Bill Nighy's Davy Jones or even Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa, who plays a big part in the new film. (I'm also tired of Rush's pirate talk ... it's definitely starting to grate.) It's hard to beat the octopus face that Nighy had, and the screenplay here does little to establish Blackbeard as a force to be reckoned with. I will give props to the art director who concocted his menacing boat; it's far more interesting than the person captaining it.

The aforementioned mermaids appear in the film's best scene, in which sad sailors are used as bait by Blackbeard to attract the beautiful sea creatures. These mermaids are not cousins to Darryl Hannah's finned one in Splash. They act all cute until you get close—and then they flash vampire teeth and drag men down into the depths. It's scary.

This would be the only scene where new director Rob Marshall really gets it right. Marshall replaced Gore Verbinski, who got the franchise rolling with a terrific first installment, lost his way with the rambling overlong second, and got a little of his mojo back with the third.

Marshall, whose biggest project before this was the musical Chicago, seems all wrong to pilot a big-budget summer-movie extravaganza. His Pirates movie has more in common with his lackluster directorial efforts for Nine and Memoirs of a Geisha, in that it is remarkably flat. When will big studios realize that Marshall specializes in fat, bloated, boring projects that go nowhere, and quit hiring him?

The film's live-action shots were filmed with 3-D cameras, and it's noticeable. I saw the film in 3-D, and there are a couple of nice moments involving swords sticking out over the audience; the outdoor shots are quite pretty to look at, too. Special-effects CGI stuff was done in 2-D and converted after, and the results are fine.

But good 3-D shots do not a movie make. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is further proof that Disney got it right with the first installment, and probably should've stopped there (which, of course, they wouldn't do because of the millions to be minted).

Since the first chapter, the movies have largely been what I feared the franchise would be in the first place: a lifeless riff on an amusement-park ride that is far more entertaining than most of the movies based upon it.

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