Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

A few days ago I said this about Pirates 4: “This movie sure had pirates!” I feel like I could just leave it at that, and have said everything about the movie that needs to be said. It’s not really a question of whether or not I enjoyed the movie. Do you like pirates? This movie has them. Really good ones, in fact! So you’ll probably like it. As it happens I do like pirates, and therefore ended up liking this movie. I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the film would have been much weaker if the pirate quota had not been filled.

That said, I know a lot of people won’t feel the same way. People are already comparing On Stranger Tides to the likes of Phantom Menace or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I suppose, if one’s hand is forced, one must concede that the comparison is apt; they’re tacking a perhaps unneeded sequel onto a beloved — and complete — movie franchise. But the rub is this: I didn’t hate either of those movies either. I could sum up my thoughts on the come-latelies in Star Wars or Indiana Jones in exactly the same way as I did Pirates 4. “That sure was a sci-fi adventure!” Or, “that sure was an action-packed pulp story!”

Sometimes you pay your $13 ticket price and you know exactly what you’re getting into. Pirates 4 is like that. Anyone complaining that the movie was too much this, or not enough that probably didn’t have their expectations adjusted properly. The movie has pirates; full stop. What else were you in it for?

Still, On Stranger Tides is quite a bit different from the previous three films. I mean, different in a way that the Star Wars prequels weren’t. The trilogy was a high-falutin’ adventure series, see. Epic, you might say. It’s the grand story of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, the pirates they manage to get themselves mixed up with, and a whole host of supernatural beasts and baddies. Parts of it were overwrought, sure. Some of it was stuffed too full. A lot of it was downright stupid. But the story, across three movies, was complete; there was a climax, and a resolution. The ending was bittersweet, and more importantly, it was final.

And that’s why On Stranger Tides is so different; the Turners’ story is over. This new chapter isn’t part four of a grand adventure story so much as a single, stand-alone episode in “The Continuing Adventures of Cap’ns Jack and Barbossa”.

Fortunately for us, Jack and Barbossa are more than enough pirate to carry a story like this. If you liked them in the first three movies you’ll like them again here. Well, maybe with a smidge of reservation.

Jack Sparrow is the heart of the Pirates franchise, but a lot of what originally endeared me to the character is absent in Pirates 4. He’s still the same Jack, you understand. It’s just, well… he doesn’t really have much stake in the goings-on of this film. He’s certainly part of the story, inasmuch as it’s happening around him, but he’s not the crux of it. Jack’s victory and failure conditions are totally incidental — he’s really just along for the ride.

It’s like how John Locke is in every episode of Lost, but they’re not all Locke episodes.

Part of the brilliance of Jack Sparrow’s character is the drunken swagger he had, which always kept you guessing as to his motives and ability. You could never tell whether Jack was masterminding everything in the plot, or if he was just bumbling through it with a fire under his arse. In the first movie, at least, it seemed like more of the former. You could tell, because his swagger and aloofness evaporated instantly — albeit momentarily — when he finally shot Barbossa. You could tell, right there, that was the culmination of years of planning and heartache, all coming to a head. It’s the one moment in the movie where Jack is dead serious. The second and third films explore Jack as being at least slightly completely insane, and that angle fits him just as well. What kind of man would do the things Jack Sparrow does, in the manner in which he does them, if not one who is absolutely off his rocker?

But in Pirates 4 Jack is neither the mastermind nor the madman. I got the strong sense that the first three movies were an anomaly in the existence of Jack Sparrow; he had all this nonsense to deal with concerning Barbossa and Davy Jones, and now that that’s finally taken care of, he can get back to the kinds of zany adventures he’s more accustomed to. Looked at from that angle, Pirates 4 is “back to normal”. It’s just, we didn’t have any basis for comparison until now.

I’m rambling, I know. I’ll move on. Did you know Ian McShane plays Blackbeard in this film? Because I sure as hell didn’t, right up until he walked out onscreen. I fell in love straight away and was absolutely captivated with every moment of him. It’s always fun to watch Jack and Barbossa swat each other back and forth, but On Stranger Tides is really Blackbeard’s movie. He is, without reservation, the most singularly evil specimen of piracy in the whole series. Barbossa and Davy Jones both have their moments (and hell, so do Jack and Will), but they are painted as tragic villains who you are supposed to sympathize with, at least in part. Blackbeard has no tragic past or humanizing characteristics; as he himself puts it, he is simply “a bad man”.

Oh! And this movie has mermaids. That’s worth, like, two and a half stars right there. And not these sissy seashell-wearing songbird mermaids, neither. No sir — these are badass topless man-eating mermaids who will wreck your ship for no reason other than fuck your ship, buddy. That’s fine cinema right there. I could have watched another hour of that, no lie.

I feel like I’m forgetting something worth mentioning, but you know, looking back over what I’ve already written, I think I might just leave it at that. This movie has pirates; that’s why it’s called that. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll probably get your fill.

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