Um, did anybody ask for this?

Personally, I cannot recall a lot of folks walking out of Gore Verbinskis gargantuan 169-minute, eye-popping, exhausting 2007 Pirates Of The Caribbean: At Worlds Endwhich if you remember arrived in theatres less than a year after the equally draining 151-minute Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Mans Chestsaying: Damn, I really havent had enough of these massively overstuffed movies based upon an eight-minute theme park attraction. I hope they make some more!

Alas, such are the mathematics of franchise filmmaking. If you build it, they will come. A cursory skim through Entertainment Weeklys recent Summer Movie Preview left me groaning (even moreso than usual) over the logjam of sequels, prequels and comic book adaptations headed our way this particular silly season. Blockbusters have become so prohibitively expensive and studios so risk-averse, branding long ago became more important than the story. This latest Pirates installment is a perfect case in pointthe film was made for no discernible reason other than that its a safe-bet, pre-sold commodity.

Truth be told, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isnt even a particularly terrible movie. Its just not interesting enough to get angry about. Whereas Verbinskis first three chapters frustratingly buried genuine visual wit and giant flights of imagination beneath a massive pig-pile of labyrinthine legends and general air of too-muchness, director Rob Marshalls maiden voyage at the helm is skimpy and almost defiantly pedestrian. It lacks the ambition to inspire any strong feelings.

Yes, Johnny Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow, our perpetually blotto, cowardly anti-hero hell-bent on proving the law of diminishing returns like no once-beloved screen character since Austin Powers. In the first Pirates: Curse Of The I Forget What It Was Called, Depps effeminate sashays and slurry speech felt like a grand, delightful act of sedition within an otherwise stodgy Disney product. But familiarity breeds contempt, and theres not really enough of a character here to justify four trips back to this same shallow well.

Especially since On Stranger Tides commits the strategic error of attempting to make Sparrow the protagonist, instead of his usual role as a wild-card on the sidelines. Jettisoning the (dull) protagonists Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley, Sparrows now saddled with the gravitas of a tragic history and conflicted motivations, simultaneously having to play both the hero and the comic relief. Thats a tall order for any actor, but especially for one like Depp who clearly just doesnt give a fuck anymore, mugging for the camera while covetously eying the next paycheck and merchandise residuals. (Hes reached that awful DeNiro phase far too early in his career, and these Pirates movies will probably go down as Depps Fockers.)

Theres much ado about the Fountain of Youth, and in the roundabout screenwriting style favored by series scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, that means a lot of pointless sideline ventures and dastardly double-dealing. Geoffrey Rushs scenery-gnawing Barbossa returns, once again stretching out his enunciation of a simple Arrgh to the length of a microbudget indie feature. Pitted at cross-

purposes against Ian McShanes dastardly Blackbeard, Depp and Rush once again try to out-ham one another.

But McShane is sort of marvelous. Recycling most of his Deadwood mannerisms minus the soul, Blackbeard is perpetually exasperated by the incompetence of both his colleagues and enemies. Rolling his eyes and making obtuse matter-of-fact pronouncements in that booming, sonorous way that only Ian McShane can, he seems as exasperated with the inane plot developments as we are. I liked him much more than the good guys.

Penlope Cruz turns up as Blackbeards daughter, toting a backstory with Jack Sparrow lifted wholesale from Indy and Marion in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Strange how Depp and Cruz, two of the most beautiful people on the planet, cant muster the slightest spark of chemistry together. But kudos to Marshall for at least making a grand show of her pregnancy cleavage.

And thats about all Ill give Marshall credit for, because On Stranger Tides is ineptly staged. A glorified choreographer who lucked out when some of yall fell for Chicago, Marshall has since demonstrated in both Memoirs Of A Geisha and Nine that he has no idea how a movie is supposed to work, visually. Every scene in On Stranger Tides begins with the same second-unit helicopter shot of the camera hurtling through exotic locales, before cutting to resolutely stage-bound, medium close-ups of the actors that look as if they were filmed on a Burbank soundstage.

His framing is tight and cramped, with nothing at all happening in the background. Truth be told, I opted for a 2-D screening, because I dont like paying an extra four bucks for a headache. But short of characters shoving their swords directly into the lens every five or six minutes, I dont see much use for an extra dimension. Theres no sense of scope or grandeur here, everybody is just punching a time clock and setting up the next sequel.

Never thought Id feel nostalgic for Gore Verbinski.

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