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The Great Train Robbery

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On Stranger Tides sails back to the straightforward adventure stylings of The Curse of the Black Pearl. Even so, there are some noticeable, and refreshing, differences that separate it from the Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner trilogy.

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Jack and Angelica wade through stranger tides
Jack and Angelica wade through stranger tides

During the course of the Swann/Turner saga, Cap’n Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, The Tourist) was embroiled in an adventure not entirely of his own creation. He became entangled in the love story of two star-crossed lovers, a young woman of high society and the son of a pirate. As part of that epic story, Sparrow still managed to collect a highlight reel all his own. He fended off the black spot, outmaneuvered the infamous Davy Jones, gave the Kraken a bad stomach ache, regained - and lost - captaincy of his ship more than once, buckled his swash numerous times, and survived the land of the dead.

After all that, what’s a pirate to do?

Well, there’s something poetic about Cap’n Jack steering away from the Land of the Dead and setting his compass on the Fountain of Youth.

On Stranger Tides manages to find a whole new world for Jack to explore; it’s a world of mermaids, zombies, voodoo, Ponce de Leon, Blackbeard, and the aforementioned Fountain of Youth, all wrapped up in the same kind of complicated Machiavellian trickeries of the three previous Pirates movies. That’s to say, returning scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have brought back the wit and goofy action set pieces that helped make the first three movies so endearing.

On His Majesty’s Not-So-Secret Service

On Stranger Tides picks up a short while after At World’s End.

Sparrow once again makes a great entrance, this time in London. But to say more would be to say too much.

Complications arose while in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth during the between-chapters, but things pick up for Jack, somewhat, when he becomes a hired sword in the service of King George. And, unfortunately for Jack, his long-time sparring adversary, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech), is put in charge of the expedition.

Things are spiced up significantly with the arrival of one hot lass named Angelica (Penelope Cruz, Vanilla Sky). Hardly angelic, she serves as something of a love interest for Jack. Well, a no-love-lost interest might be a better way to put it. In a hilarious little bit of back story, it turns out Angelica was ready to take her vows at a convent when Jack Sparrow darkened her door, sullied her name, and did numerous other things to/with her. He had, he now claims, mistaken the place for a brothel.

Arrr, but there’s a bigger complication for Jack to contend with, more deadly than the mere wrath of this scorned woman. She also happens to be Blackbeard’s daughter.

Or at least so she says. She’s a mighty fine liar, so it’s hard to know where her life and reality intersect.

In any case, as played by Ian McShane (TV’s Deadwood), Blackbeard is exactly what he proclaims himself to be: A bad man.

A Pirate’s Life

Once the players are all in place, the race begins for the Fountain of Youth, with Blackbeard, Angelica, Barbossa, and Jack Sparrow all participating in the quest, but with varying motivations.

As the credits note, On Stranger Tides was “suggested” by Tim Powers’ 1988 novel of the same title. The top-level elements of Blackbeard, zombies, and the Fountain of Youth are among the key contributions, along with perhaps a line or two of dialogue.

Really, though, it’s a marriage of ideas more than story. The book is a slog of a read in comparison to the movie’s non-stop action. In fact, the movie’s action-filled approach comes across as a direct response to those who yipped about the metaphysical, existential tangents Gore Verbinski poured into his trilogy.

Looking back on those three Verbinski movies, though, they’ve held up well so far, thanks in large part to the character arcs played out through the series’ lead players. There’s a consistently high level of production quality among Verbinski’s trilogy that has seamlessly carried over to On Stranger Tides, with Rob Marshall (Chicago) taking over the director’s chair.

A Refreshing Fountain

Perhaps the biggest change in On Stranger Tides is that this time around Jack’s heroics seem much more deliberate and intentional than the mostly haphazard antics seen in the previous chapters. Maybe his trip to World’s End matured him a bit; maybe he’s not hitting the rum quite as hard these days. Or maybe that’s one of the benefits of no longer being a supporting player in somebody else’s storyline.

Jack’s actually a very good pirate in On Stranger Tides and it’s a pirate’s life for him indeed. It’s also nice to see Keith Richards return as Jack’s dad, but his cameo is all too brief; it’s of the sort that takes on Obi-Wan Kenobi-like atmospherics.

Even with the fun of seeing Jack unleashed in his own adventure, there’s plenty of room for a dark side. Adding some interesting tones and textures is a subplot involving a mermaid and a Christian missionary held captive by Blackbeard.

The mermaid scenes generate a certain kind of eerie magic, but as beautiful as the mermaids are on the outside, on the inside they’re mighty sinister, with legends saying they seduce men then carry them down to the bottom of the sea and have them for dinner.

Not as dinner guests, but as dinner.

Given all the exotic story elements and colorful characters introduced in On Stranger Tides, the quest for the Fountain of Youth has effectively brought new life to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Savvy?