The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was one of the most perfect popcorn movies of the 2000’s. It got the balance of action, romance, comedy, drama and fantasy spot on, along with introducing one of the most iconic movie characters of recent years to cinema-goers in the form of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. The following sequels were a very mixed bag. Dead Man’s Chest remained a lot of fun, but the storyline began to change into a labyrinth, which eventually became an endless maze with the mess that was At World’s End. I never blamed director Gore Verbinski, he always brought incredible visual flair to the movies with brilliantly staged action sequences, always managing to keep the pulse up and the scale epic. I blame the writers, Terry Russio and Ted Elliott for losing sight of the franchise. It may not come as a surprise then that this fourth installment still falls short of being a roaring adventure like the first one, as it is still written by Russio and Elliott, but Verbinski is not the one in the director’s chair. So, how does it fare, I hear you ask me hearties?

The story sort of follows on from  At World’s End, where we saw Jack and Barbossa about to go head to head in a race for the Fountain of Youth. But some time has passed and neither have managed to find the mysterious location of the fountain that grants eternal life. The action kicks off in London, where Jack finds himself arrested by the King’s Royal guards. There he is offered the chance to lead an expedition to find the Fountain, with a crew led by Barbossa, who is now a Privateer in the British Navy (somehow). Jack, never being one to follow orders, heads out to find the fountain himself, but soon becomes entwined with an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of the villainous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who is after the fountain himself. So it’s a race to the finish as to who can reach the fountain first. Oh, and the Spanish are after it as well, but they’re incredibly pointless until the final act.

The problem with this movie, as with the sequels, lies with the story. It never really gets off the ground. It’s much less muddled and confusing then At World’s End, but there are moments where it threatens to move into similar territory of that movie, in which every character seems to deceive one another at some point. It seems the writers haven’t entirely learnt their lesson. The ‘running to the finish line’ aspect of the movie works well for the most part, but that in itself takes a back seat to the numerous action  scenes and character development. The character development is probably the main problem of the movie. Thankfully Jack Sparrow is his good old usually self and still delivers the goods in terms of ‘Buster Keaton’ style slapstick and pirate drawl. Penelope Cruz’s Angelica works well too, proving a match for Sparrow. The main problem is the lack of a real villain. Ian McShane’s Blackbeard never seems fearsome or all that threatening like Geoffrey Rush was in the first movie. He never feels threatening enough to even care for as a villain, and McShane’s performance is disappointingly bland. Rush’s Barbossa, too, is not entirely well handled. The character is still a lot of fun, thanks in large part to Rush’s performance, but it’s very strange to see him working for the British Navy, which is why the ending, in terms of his character, is quite satisfying.

Where Russio and Eliott fail to construct an effective narrative and development, they do manage succeed in terms of some very entertaining action sequences. The opening sequence in London does manage to kick proceedings off with a breezy start, with the type of swashbuckling and slapstick humour we’ve come to expect from these sort of movies. The sword fights, as well, remain very well choreographed and fun to watch, even if they do seem to be lacking in originality (one fight in a brewery very much echoes Jack and Will’s first encounter from the first movie). The stand-out sequence, though, has to be the Mermaid attack, which occurs when Blackbeard tries to capture one of the mythical beings for its tears. The sequence is tense, original, exciting and beautifully shot. It’s moments like these which show the promise of a really great pirate movie, but which unfortunately fall under the weight of the story. No matter how hard they try, the pace never truly gets the pulse racing.

As mentioned before, the returning cast members work incredibly hard, Depp and Rush particularly, easing themselves back into their respective roles with no trouble at all. Some of the more enjoyable moments of the movie occur  when the two share scenes together; on board an unbalanced old ship and their escape from a Spanish base camp particuarly highlight this. Penelope Cruz is a welcome addition, as she has a very easy chemistry with Depp and she handles herself very well in the numerous stunts of the movie. McShane, as I have already, is rather disappointing, not bringing the gravitas I expected from him to the role of the ‘should-be’ villainous Blackbeard. Newcomers Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey are given the unfortunate task of filling in the Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley roles. And that’s all they come off as in the end, as a clergyman and a mermaid which fall in love, who are merely there to have some sort of love story. The Jack and Angelica subplot would have sufficed, which leads to these characters being quite underwritten, with both of the young actors feeling a bit unsure of themselves. I felt a bit sorry for them really.

The new director in question for this movie is Rob Marshall, who directed the likes of Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha. He certainly knows how to make a film look lavish, in terms of cinematography and costume design. And of course, the Hans Zimmer score remains thunderously brilliant. Yet the film did seem much flatter, ironic really considering it was shot in 3-D. The scale isn’t quite as epic in this one, which I assume was one of the ways the writers were trying to bring it back to the style of the first one. But their, and I’m afraid Marshall’s, pacing does not achieve the heights of the first movie. It certainly improves upon the boring pacing of At World’s End, but Dead Man’s Chest remains the sequel closest in terms of quality to the original movie. It may sound like I’m being incredibly harsh, this is still a fun movie, but they’re moments of fun which give the sense that there could have been a much better movie if the story, and indeed some of the character development had more time given to them, and perhaps a fresh take. So, my suggestions for the next one? Time for Jack to get a facelift, with some new writers with fresh ideas. Then I’d be happy to set sail once again. But on the terms of this movie, I’m in no rush.

2/5– There are flashes of brilliance in this movie that give glimpses of what could have been. But the pacing and under-developed characters make this fourth installment a slightly underwhelming experience. However, go in with an open mind and there is some fun to be had. Savvy?

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