/ 19 May 2011

The tide is high

The Tide Is High

Sitting in Jo’burg traffic on the way to a 5pm screening of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at Sandton City, I rather quailed at the thought that not only would the film be 140 minutes long, it would also be in 3D. I wondered if I’d be able to last through the whole thing.

As it turned out, however, it was all quite bearable. Maybe I’ve got used to 3D somewhat, after a few years of a definite aversion to it, but it was largely inoffensive to me in this instance. It still felt as though it defocused some of the movie, and there were intermittent reminders that there was some awkward plastic thing sitting on the bridge of my nose, but I did not emerge from the theatre with a headache. Perhaps you might say I have joined the Society of the Plastic Spectacles.

Most pleasingly of all, though, this Pirates movie (the fourth, for anyone who’s lost count) pays more attention to the script and to the flow of the action than instalments two and three. I liked the first Pirates of the Caribbean a lot: it had wit and zip, qualities the next two lost somewhere in the determination to fill the screen — and the running time — with overblown special effects. Without some sensible plot organisation and some decent scripting, on however popular a level, such extravaganzas simply become numbing.

It seems it was Johnny Depp, as the now iconic Captain Jack Sparrow, who added a fair amount of wit to the first movie. Like Robert Downey Jr in the later Iron Man, he surely pepped up his own lines — even as he camped up his performance to a degree that apparently worried the Disney execs at first. Of course, once the initial Pirates had made pots of money, such worries were forgotten; Depp’s actorly eccentricities were hailed as pure genius and it was all hands on deck for the two bloated and considerably less ­enjoyable sequels.

After that, Depp would have been forgiven for calling it a day on Cap’n Jack. He had done his duty to the suits at Disney, pocketed some enormous cheques and notified his brokers of the residuals due to pour in, so some quiet time with his wife and children at his château in France would hardly have been begrudged him. He’d been a big star before the first Pirates, but now he was a megastar, one of the top three or four in the world.

Four years have passed since the third Pirates. In that time Depp has made seven movies, one of them an animation (Rango) in which he did voice work. Last year’s outing with Angelina Jolie, The Tourist, was glossy piffle and can’t have made as much money as the Hollywood accountants hoped. One suspects, though, that if he was willing to play Jack Sparrow again it was not so much because other projects were less successful but on condition that the makers of a new Pirates movie invested as much in the script as they were prepared to spend on effects.

And it works. Two people worked on the storyline and two more pulled the script proper together. Besides that, the movie is “suggested” by Tim Powers’s novel On Stranger Tides, which predates the Pirates franchise — the first movie having been a spin-off of the Disney theme-park attraction. This is a little surprising, referring to a novel for the fourth episode when the first three had no need of any literary input. Obviously, fresh ideas were needed, but it has also been “suggested” that some acknowledgement had to be given to books whose concepts the earlier movies may already have, er, pirated.

Whatever the case, On Stranger Tides gets off to a good start, with a piracy trial and then a rapid chase through the streets of London, plus three quick cameos (Richard Griffiths, Judi Dench and Keith Richards) thrown in. Captain Jack discovers that a Captain Jack impersonator is in the city, crewing up for a voyage to find the Fountain of Youth, a quest already supported by rival representatives of the Spanish and British crowns — and soon enough Jack is engaged in a swordfight with his doppelgänger, which is a rather nice conceit.

Then the odyssey kicks off, and it’s an amusing, if long, voyage. Jack’s old foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back to snap at his heels and new characters are introduced to make up for the absence of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, who have presumably now given up pirating to settle down and peacefully raise a family in some stately country home. There’s no new character as extravagant as the octopus-faced Davey Jones in episodes two and three, but Ian McShane as the frightening Blackbeard and Penélope Cruz as a delightful piratess (and one of Jack’s abandoned amours) more than fill the gap.

Ironically, it feels as though Jack Sparrow himself is a bit of a weak point here. Not that he isn’t as funny and charmingly roguish as ever, but it seems that Depp is doing same-old same-old — with perhaps only a touch more twitchery on top.

Depp’s Cap’n Jack is as much swish as swash, which is part of his appeal, and one hardly expects character development as such. The relative freshness of On Stranger Tides means that repetition from Depp doesn’t matter much, but perhaps the fifth Pirates, which now seems inevitable, could also give Jack Sparrow a little freshening up.