Cap’n Jack Sparrow (Depp) is alarmed to learn that someone claiming his name is raising a crew to seek the mythical Fountain Of Youth. The race is on to find it, with Captain Barbossa (Rush), now the King’s privateer, Captain Blackbeard (McShane), old flame Angelica (Cruz) and a Spanish fleet all after the same secret.
Another visit from Cap’n Jack is something devoutly to be wished for, but this fourth outing for Johnny Depp’s still-likable louche can’t recapture the magic of the first, or even match the narrative drive of its immediate predecessors. Instead we have a race to a prize that no-one needs bar, perhaps, the villain, and a lack of piratical vim and vigour.
The odd thing about this whole series is that the filmmakers apparently view it very differently from the audience. For most, Pirates is a swashbuckling, comedy blockbuster with the puckish Cap’n Jack at its heart. For the filmmakers, it seems to be a philosophical exercise that just happens to have big action set-pieces, an examination of a world where no character can trust another, and Cap’n Jack is merely one of an ensemble.
Such lofty ambitions are not necessarily fatal, but here they cripple the plot. After just minutes it’s clear that, as in At World’s End, the next double-cross is always just around the corner. It’s impossible to invest in any plan of action, since you know that there will be a reverse within moments. Perversely, this doesn’t create tension but an odd sense of boredom. There’s no game element, no intellectual puzzle because the audience is not given enough information to play with. Nor is the romantic tension between Jack and Penélope Cruz’s Angelica ever truly engaging, since you can’t imagine either being around long enough to get undressed, never mind living happily ever after.
Characters are introduced and discarded on a whim, and the Chekhov’s gun maxim (any object introduced in a story should be used) is broken over and over again. Sure, it looks nifty that Blackbeard’s ship comes with optional ginormous flamethrowers — but unless you’re going to use them convincingly, who cares? And while we’re on the subject, what exactly are Blackbeard’s powers? And why are there zombie sailors, generally?
There are, of course, still bombastic action scenes and high production values. We’re treated to an improbably high-speed carriage chase through London, and a brewery-based duel that riffs on the first film’s forge fight. Best of the lot, however, is a mermaid attack. Forget any notions you had about Ariel and her sisters: this lot are fishily vicious. But even here, there is no single jaw-drop moment, no Davy Jones, no skeletal pirate parade, no cannibal cage.
As for the newcomers, it is a surprise to learn how much we miss Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Their straight-arrow lovers gave the series balance, and the young pretenders here — missionary Phillip (Claflin) and mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) — don’t get enough of a look-in to fill their boots. McShane’s Blackbeard needs more time for either his menace or the tragedy of his prophesised death to grab us, while Rush’s Barbossa is a shadow of his former self. Even Jack rarely seems to be having fun. With fewer characters and an abbreviated running time, this might have been a return to form. As it is, it’s a further decline for the franchise.
An overly complicated plot and poorly thought-out characters detract from the flashes of charm that Cap’n Jack still emits. Despite quality set-pieces and the best efforts of the cast, this is dull and crossbones.