Review: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' Sails into Dark Waters

Four years ago, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp’s alter ego) sailed out of our lives in “At World’s End,” in a chaotic, action-packed ending to a three-part series. But the only way to really get rid of Jack, or any pirate for that matter, is to hang them. Thus, it was inevitable that he would reappear on the high seas, off on another adventure.

And so he has. Sparrow is back in “On Stranger Tides,” a dark race across high seas in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth.

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“On Stranger Tides” begins with Jack Sparrow up to the antics that made him famous, impersonating a British judge in order to rescue Gibbs (Kevin McNally), his old shipmate. (Depp and McNally, like the actors playing all the reprised characters and most of the new ones, hit their marks with ease.) But their attempted escape is foiled by King George’s men, and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in service of the British Crown, demands that Jack join him on a quest in search of the Fountain of Youth.

The ever-adept Jack escapes Barbossa’s grasp, only to be captured by former lover Angelica (Penélope Cruz) and forced into the crew of her father, the mythically villainous Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who is also searching for the famed fountain.

It’s a dark tale — in content, but especially in lighting. Much of the film occurs at night, in claustrophobic boat hulls or in life boats under cloudy skies. Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest (and director Rob Marshall’s first) is perhaps dimmer because of the 3-D, which isn’t great quality.

The story is “suggested by” Tim Powers’ 1987 novel of the same name, where characters are kidnapped by pirates, encounter zombies, and go searching for the Fountain of Youth. As such, it is a little convoluted, and the zombies and man/mermaid love story add little to the film.

Fortunately, if you’re looking for an action flick, this one doesn’t let up. From the first minutes, when Jack once again demonstrates his rare ability to elude British soldiers, there’s non-stop running, jumping, shooting, swordplay and explosions. Throw in killer mermaids and there’s almost nothing this film doesn’t have. This one earns its PG-13 rating, to the point that it’s not really for 13-year-olds. There’s a lot of dark violence. Captain Blackbeard is downright evil: he finds pleasure in burning a traitor to death and using sailors as bait to capture a mermaid (not your typical Ariel; these mermaids are topless and hungry). He’s willing to torture and murder to gain eternal life. Of course, his dedication is commendable, but there’s gotta be an easier way to live forever.

Actually, there is. Enter Philip (Sam Claflin), a solid Christian, unlucky enough to be a captive on Blackbeard’s ship. He lives out his faith through dedication to non-violence, outspoken advocacy for mercy in the face of danger, and through courageous defense of the helpless.

But Disney couldn’t follow through, and when Philip falls for a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), his faith in God falters. Too bad – his spiritual foundation is stronger than the romantic dialogue that makes him question it, and the romance ends a little too weirdly to make the change of heart worth it.

This fourth installation truly sails stranger tides. It didn’t need to stay at the familiar shores of “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and it avoided the extremities of Calypso in “At World’s End,” but these choppy waters are especially dark and more comedy-averse than the first voyage. I, for one, look forward to when these pirates return to the Caribbean, and sail family-friendlier waters.

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