Captain Jack Sparrow is essentially the Fonzie of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films: the swaggering, one-note flavor character who proved to be the series’ most popular element, and quickly took over. That’s more obvious than ever in Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the first installment without director Gore Verbinski or romantic leads Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley: The whole story now rests awkwardly on Sparrow’s narrow shoulders. Stranger Tides eventually produces a substitute naïve, romantic hero and a star-crossed love interest, but that’s a late-film development, and a minor subplot among many others. For the most part, Sparrow (Johnny Depp) swishes, swans, and swashbuckles through the center of the story, trying to fill all the narrative roles himself, which means he’s by turns cowardly and bold, selfish and self-sacrificing, an egotistical monomaniac and a tenderhearted softie. It’s like watching a one-man show where the roles keep changing.
But much of the rest of the film remains consistent with the series to date: Stranger Tides is another loose chain of big action setpieces, this time centered on a quest for the Fountain Of Youth that draws in a Spanish expedition, a British deputation (captained by series regular Geoffrey Rush), the pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and his maybe-daughter (Penélope Cruz). There’s a little of the usual POTC changes of fortunes and changing of sides, but Tides is generally a straightforward, simple race to a goal with a lot of sword-fighting and special effects along the way.
The series has needed this streamlining since the beginning—individual scenes drag on too long for the film to feel fleet or propulsive, but at least the endless convoluted exposition is largely gone. And viewers’ engagement will depend entirely on their tolerance for Depp’s antics: Apart from Cruz, who throws herself lustily into her tough-seductress role, the actors give negligible performances, with McShane, Rush, and Keith Richards in a repeat cameo all playing nigh-identical smug glowerers. POTC was never about nuance, and now it’s even less so: It’s about watching Depp fall into peril and wriggle his way out, over and over, for hours. Tides is a smaller film than past installments, by design and necessity. Which often makes it feel lightweight, but that’s still better than bloated.