The good news is that Capt. Jack Sparrow can prevent a yo-ho-ho movie from becoming entirely yo-ho-hum. The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides, is a marked improvement over the third, At World's End, so bloated and aimless that many didn't care if Sparrow ever set sail again.
Like any sinking ship should, On Stranger Tides dumps its dead weight — although in one case swapping it for qualities just as dead yet lighter. The plot contraptions and ghostly skeleton crews preferred by previous director Gore Verbinski are gone. There's actually something like a story here, about searching for the mythic Fountain of Youth, and several stylish action sequences including a memorable mermaid attack.
Not every new wrinkle brought to the franchise by director Rob Marshall is as invigorating. If he spares us the blandness of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom as distracting love interests, then Marshall should fill the obligatory casting slots with actors more interesting than he did. Enough goes on in On Stranger Tides that audiences wouldn't miss the subplot.
It's a three-team race to the fountain, and much of the film's first 30 minutes is spent introducing the competitors. First on the trail is Spain, where a sailor fished from the sea brings news that the life-preserving waters exist. Then England, which hears through the grapevine that Jack Sparrow is rounding up a crew for a voyage assumed to be a fountain quest. King George (Richard Griffiths) hires Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) as a privateer to get there first.
But it isn't Jack assembling a crew. It's an imposter who turns out to be the lovely con woman Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who once dallied with Jack and now claims to be the daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who is dying. Angelica wants the charmed waters to save her father, with Jack shanghaied for the mission.
For all his comments about not minding if he played Jack Sparrow forever, Depp appears to be growing weary of this sport. He's too dedicated an actor to phone it in, of course, but sameness has never been something Depp is comfortable with. It shows here, ever so slightly. There's less swish in his swashbuckling, and a bit of staggering through the motions.
Depp and Cruz only occasionally strike the sparks expected from two of the world's most beautiful people. There should be more naughty moments, teasing viewers toward the sexual combustion these two might generate. More lines like Jack's delicious double entendre when Angelica recalls an earlier cruise and she was his first mate: "Was I the first?" he says. "I always wondered."
There are enough such moments of Jack being Jack in On Stranger Tides to please his fans, who should love him enough by now to let him go.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.