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Pirates of the Caribbean

On Stranger Tides

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the third sequel and fourth film in Disney’s lucrative franchise, is commercial filmmaking at its witless, joyless, unimaginative worst.

With Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom (and their respective characters) no longer a part of the franchise, On Stranger Tides moves Captain Jack Sparrow, the (seemingly) perpetually drunk, borderline amoral anti-hero (and pirate), front and center.

Sparrow arrives in London, ostensibly to save his one-time First Mate, Gibbs (Kevin McNally), from the hangman’s noose. Sparrow’s impromptu plan goes awry, temporarily leading to his capture and an audience with the British monarch, King George (Richard Griffiths).

Sparrow rejects King George’s demand for Sparrow to guide a British expedition to the Fountain of Youth, escaping into the darker corners of London’s underground to avoid the king’s men and to find the Sparrow impersonator who’s been actively recruiting a crew for a voyage to the New World.

In his search, Sparrow crosses path with Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a once-chaste woman Sparrow seduced, corrupted (he found her in a nunnery), and unceremoniously dumped. Also searching for the Fountain of Youth, Angelica makes Sparrow an offer he can’t refuse (she kidnaps him). Sparrow awakens aboard the “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” a pirate ship belonging to the most feared pirate to sail the Seven Seas, Blackbeard (Ian McShane).

Blackbeard also happens to be Angelica’s long-lost father. Coal-black evil to his shrunken, Grinch-like heard, Blackbeard hopes to circumvent a prophecy involving his demise at the sword-point of a one-legged man in a fortnight. Angelica unconvincingly believes Blackbeard, or rather his soul, can be saved.

On Stranger Tides may be less convoluted than the bloated second and third installments (and shorter, running time wise, too), but that’s just another way to damn the fourth installment in the franchise with the faintest of faint praise. Loosely inspired by Tim Powers’ unrelated dark-fantasy novel, “On Stranger Tides” (published in 1987), the fourth installment, once again written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, sends three groups after the Fountain of Youth, Sparrow/Blackbeard/Angelica; Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Sparrow’s former nemesis and now a British privateer; and the Spanish. But the race is kept mostly offscreen, appearing periodically to jump-start On Stranger Tides during frequent lulls in dramatic momentum due to Elliot and Rossio’s tell-don’t-show, exposition-heavy dialogue scenes.

Elliot and Rossio also cram in an unnecessary, underwritten romantic subplot involving Philip (Sam Claflin), a clergyman kidnapped by Blackbeard, and a dark-haired mermaid, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), key to the Fountain of Youth plot point.

With three-time Pirates director Gore Verbinski refusing to return for a fourth installment, Disney gave Elliot, Rossio, and new director Rob Marshall (Nine, Chicago) a mandate to bring On Stranger Tides in on a modest $200 million budget. With roughly half the number of visual effects-heavy shots (1,100 versus 2,000 for the third installment), On Stranger Tides lacks the big fantasy- and pop-oriented set pieces of its predecessors, a bottom-line decision that makes it the least visually engaging or compelling entry in the four-film franchise.

To be fair, On Stranger Tides does contain one effects-heavy scene involving mermaids, but it’s marred by Marshall’s inexperience directing action, murky visuals, and unconvincing CG.

Little of the preceding will matter, of course, if Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides becomes, like its predecessors, a massive commercial hit (the previous three entries filled Disney’s coffers to the tune of $2.6 billion globally). Regardless of On Stranger Tides’ commercial success, however, that won’t change an immutable fact: It’s time to send Sparrow into permanent celluloid exile.

Depp, obviously bored with playing Sparrow a fourth time, might agree, but the lure of another sizable paycheck practically guarantees a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean installment.