Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | June 28, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides: Cap’n Jack vs. Dr. Jones! (a fanboy’s review)

I have the most impressive sword of the whole franchise!

Yes, I finally went and saw Pirates 4.  I held off, because unless I’m in a big group and/or in costume, waiting in line to see a movie isn’t much fun, in spite of anticipation.  I wore my Rogue Blackbeard Dark Rum tee shirt, which I actually had on before I knew it was movie day.  I had a wee dram of Cruzan on ice beforehand.  I went with my daughter, who was also in the mood.  We did NOT see it in 3D.  And it was a blast.  This is a movie that has taken in nearly a billion dollars worldwide already and has been critiqued up, down, and sideways.  I haven’t read any of the reviews, and I won’t.  But I do have a few words to say about Pirates 4, using a language I hope you all will understand:  geekspeak.

And I am going to compare it to Indiana Jones.

The dog?!  You are named after the dog…

Let’s time travel for a minute.  In 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark rocked the world.  Dr. Jones led some, such as myself and Josh Gates, into an obsession with archaeology, which we equated with adventure, globetrotting, and a smidgen of science.  Indy was, perhaps, the James Bond of our generation, fueling a desire to get out of the house and see the world, however romanticized cinema had made the world look.  In 1984, Indy escaped from China to India and went into the scary underground in Temple of Doom.  Fans could deal with this, viewing this as Indy’s bad trip, ignoring the incredibly annoying future Mrs. Spielberg; did Kate Capeshaw have any  redeeming qualities in that movie?  In 1989, Indy was back…with his Dad, the aforementioned Mr. Bond, aka Sean Connery, aka the man every woman wants and every man wants to be.  More importantly, Last Crusade was Indy back in form:  cocky yet fragile, suave yet goofy, beating the bad guys but only by some narrow margin of bravado and luck.  Sallah, Marcus Brody, and the evil but funny Nazis were back, too.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a feel-good movie, especially for fans.

It never goes according to plan.

I got the same feeling from On Stranger Tides.  The comparison to Indy came to mind within maybe the first fifteen minutes, for a single and simple reason:  Joshamee Gibbs is to Captain Jack what Sallah is to Doctor Jones.  Ignoring the Ponce de León setup, Pirates 4 starts (and even now I’ll try to limit the spoilers) with the the Captain and his First Mate comically trying to escape the gallows, the King, and all of London.  There is a repartee between Joshamee and Jack that sets the tone for this movie and really typifies what makes the whole series fun.  Sallah and Indy joke about camels.  Joshamee and Jack joke about why the rum–or the Black Pearl, or the driver they thought they paid off–is gone.

You are strangely dressed…for a knight.

The Indiana Jones franchise had a magic recipe.  Start with an unapologetically matinee view of making movies, add lots of daring-do, and spice with history and mythology.  Is Pirates really any different?  Change the period, and make your hero not a foolhardy archaeologist seeking “rare antiquities” with supernatural powers but a rum-soaked captain (who rarely actually commands a ship) seeking, well, rare items with supernatural powers.  The comparison to Last Crusade, honestly, is pretty damned direct.  Indy looks for the Holy Grail, which offers everlasting life.  Captain Jack Sparrow looks for the Fountain of Youth, which–yeah–offers everlasting life…and requires finding two chalices!

What sometimes seems to be missing in all of this relic hunting is some raw piracy.  That was definitely the problem with Dead Man’s Chest, but, well, then there was the brilliant Bill Nighy (“99 soulssss…ah!”).  Fortunately, On Stranger Tides has two pirates who more than adequately fill the gap.  The first is the notorious Blackbeard, played with effortless menace by Ian McShane.  There are a few nods to the real, legendary Edward Teach, such as being introduced to the screen with burning fuses in his beard, and a reference later to having his head cut off but still swimming around the boat and climbing back aboard, which is directly from the tale of Teach’s downfall at Ocracoke Inlet.  Blackbeard is also the only real vestige of On Stranger Tides‘ most immediate inspiration, Tim Power’s excellent, entertaining novel of the same name.  In both the book and the movie, the legendary historical pirate is made positively mythical as he controls a crew of zombies (of the Vodun kind, not the Romero kind) and is racing against time to reach the Fountain of Youth to stay off his own mortality.  On Stranger Tides‘ Blackbeard is self-serving and ruthless–in other words, a true pirate.  Really, though, the award goes, once again, to Captain Hector Barbossa.  This is pirate attitude totally personified, and transforming him into a “privateer”–with a pegleg!–is a great setup for hijinks.  Easily the best scenes in the movie involve Barbossa and Sparrow facing off, cooperating, or somewhere in between.  Put Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp together, and the scenery doesn’t stand a chance.

Together again (whether they want to or not)

On Stranger Tides is far from perfect.  The mermaids are well-imagined, but the man-mermaid love story subplot is just plain clunky; I suspect I’m not the target audience here.  Penélope Cruz seems to exist only so Cap’n Jack can spin innuendos.  The idea of  a female counterpart/foil/love interest for Cap’n Jack sounds good, but Cruz doesn’t have the chops to match Depp and the character just doesn’t have the wiles to truly match Sparrow.  But maybe I’m not the target audience here, either; Cruz has been widely credited with the movie’s incredible international profit.  I’m just not a fan.

Dr. Jones?

A different yardstick, however, needs to apply to movies like Pirates 4…or Indiana Jones.  The key word is escapism.  Does skill matter?  Of course it does:  Bad directors and bad actors usually make bad movies.  Nevertheless, it does not seem fair, in my opinion, to apply the same criteria for success to a Pirates movie as one would to a David Mamet film.  The goal of an escapist film is to draw the audience into a reality that may contain elements of the real or references to history but is ultimately unique and its own.  No one would pretend that the Indy movies are an accurate portrayal of their time (or always get their archaeology right), and I certainly don’t pretend that Pirates of the Caribbean is anything other than a fantasy version of the Golden Era of Piracy.  The measure of an escapist movie is simply stated but not so easily achieved:  Does it draw you in so completely that you forget the reality outside and you don’t want to leave?  Acting, direction, writing, cinematography, score, effects–all should ideally work together to this end.  The universe of Indiana Jones, and especially Last Crusade, did that, at least for me.  So, again, did Pirates of the Caribbean.

So go on, just let yourself geek out.  That’s why I’m here:  It’s still a pirate’s life for me.

Just add rum

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