In the abstract, I'm kind of giddy that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has reached its fourth installment, On Stranger Tides. Critics aren't supposed to think such things, because Hollywood franchising is killing our souls. But take a moment to contemplate a series of action blockbusters built around a protagonist who's vaguely effeminate, frequently cowardly and generally disreputable - not just an antihero, but an anti-the-whole-idea-of-what-a-hero-can-be.
Yes, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is the kind of character who should be too idiosyncratic to become a pop-culture icon, yet here Depp is once again donning braided beard and smudgy guy-liner. We should all be kind of delighted that there's a space for him in the summer-cinema universe - in the abstract.
In reality, I don't think anyone understands what to do with Captain Jack. On Stranger Tides was an opportunity to free Sparrow from the burden of the earlier films' romance and pretzel-logic plotting. Instead, we find Sparrow in London, dashing from a bungled attempt to break his old first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) out of prison to search for whoever is putting together a ship's crew while posing as Sparrow. The fake Sparrow turns out to be Angelica (Penélope Cruz), an old flame of the real Sparrow who's serving as first mate for the legendary, much-feared Blackbeard (Ian McShane) on a quest for the Fountain of Youth. Meanwhile, the British Crown has also launched an expedition for the Fountain, led by Sparrow's old frenemy Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Also meanwhile, the French become a third competitor to reach the Fountain. Also also meanwhile, there's a romantic connection between an earnest missionary (Sam Claflin) on Blackbeard's ship and a captive mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey)....
Oh. My. God. The creative team seems to have learned little from the mistakes of the past, while adding a couple of new ones along the way. The attempt to give Sparrow a romantic subplot feels like a drastic misunderstanding of the character's nature, and there's never any kind of genuine spark between Depp and Cruz. Meanwhile, the franchise gets its most confusing villain in Blackbeard.
Yet it still has a virtuoso in Depp, which means there's fun to be had whenever he's reveling in his Sparrow-ness. Simple chase scenes take on an added kick when Depp is fleeing with Sparrow's bandy-legged scamper. His marble-mouthed line readings are still a joy. Whenever On Stranger Tides has the good sense to grant Depp center stage, it feels like the funky anti-blockbuster the series has always shown glimmers of being.
But it's indicative of what On Stranger Tides fails to understand that the climactic showdown involves a duel between...Blackbeard and Barbossa, with Sparrow left to flit about in the background. Part of Sparrow's appeal has always been his efforts to avoid physical confrontation when outsmarting his opponent will do. Too bad his most stubborn adversaries have generally been the stories in which he's stuck.