Movie Review: “Pirates 4” forgettable, uninspired

These days, to call a movie “epic” is to say it has towering movie stars, impeccable production values and dazzling special effects.  That all really boils down to one thing: a gigantic budget.  Nevermind that the word “epic” can also be used to describe a movie whose thematic and narrative ambition matches its high-octane scope and its crowd-pleasing action sequences; in Hollywood, there is only room for one definition of the word.

Jerry Bruckheimer understands this philosophy perhaps better than any producer working inside the modern studio system.  Under his watchful eye small, almost non-existent stories have been told on a grand, opulent scale for years.  He had the maniacal last laugh when he successfully turned a Disney theme park attraction into a summer thrill ride with “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”  At least it should’ve been the last laugh.  Instead, he reveled in that success, and birthed two more sequels.  He now unleashes a third, “On Stranger Tides.”

The pleasure of the “Pirates” movies has always been in their acknowledgement of the macabre.  The first film contained acts of startling violence for a movie openly proclaiming itself as Disney, and the Davy Jones of the second and third films was a terrifying and grotesque creation.  However, the action movie atmosphere was not enough to carry the films toward something iconic.  For that, it needed an icon and got one and then some in the form of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp.)

From the beginning all of the chips were placed on Depp’s oddly feminine antihero.  He was a character that was not easily defined; one that walked the thin line between good and evil.  Because he was doing this in a mainstream Hollywood production, it seemed revolutionary to many.  Now in his fourth round of cashing in as Sparrow, he evokes a tone-breaking Medea-type more than anything.  “On Stranger Tides” is filled to the brim with big, Bruckheimer thrills that are broken up by close-ups of Sparrow making that wide-eyed, pursed-lip face he makes.

With no Orlando Bloom or Keira Knightley to offer up a boring love story, “On Stranger Tides” begins with a promise of letting Sparrow run rampant.  He twitches his way through the opening scenes with predictable amusement, grappling across chambers and trees to the tune of that now-familiar theme song.  He stumbles upon a lost flame, played by Penélope Cruz, who doesn’t smack him across the face like all his old conquests do.

There’s a story in there somewhere, something about the Fountain of Youth and competing factions trying to get to it.  Don’t worry about it too much, the writers didn’t.  Captain Barbossa, played again by Geoffrey Rush, shows up as do other past members of the crew. Director Rob Marshall, coming off of his flop musical “Nine,” almost makes the over-acting from Rush and others seem plausible because at any moment, they may burst into song.

New to the show is Blackbeard, played with villainous relish by “Deadwood’s” Ian McShane. Villains have always been another highlight of this franchise, and he is right up there with Davy Jones in terms of wickedness.

Those looking for summer thrills will find plenty of them here, because the action sequences are straight out of the other “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.  There is, however, one show-stopping scene involving a mermaid onslaught (you read that correctly) on a small group of weary sailors.  Marshall wisely films the scene from all angles, both above and below the water.  It’s such an engaging scene that it brings to light the biggest disappointment about another “Pirates” film.  One wouldn’t think it possible that a sweeping camera canvassing old pirate ships from high above like a seagull would get boring.  Swashbuckling and conniving aren’t the first things you think of when the word “dull” is mentioned, but they might be if there are any more of these things.

Grade: D+