After crossing paths with a woman from his past (Cruz), Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) is swept aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge, the ship of the formidable pirate Blackbeard (McShane), on an unexpected mission to find the elusive fountain of youth.
One of the side effects of the success of "Star Wars" besides dosing us with an endless stream of big-budget summer fare, is a desire to turn those films into multi-part stories with beginning, middles, and ends and turn that extended film sequence into the reason to see a sequel. Which is fine when it works well.
On the other side of the coin you have sequels built entirely around positive audience reaction to a particular character (or characters) and the desire to see their continuing adventures. A desire that usually sends filmmakers down the stultifying path of 'the same but different' which almost always ends up as 'the same.' The "Pirates of the Caribbean" films tried their hand at going the first way even though by far and away the biggest draw of the franchise has always Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). That discrepancy gave a series of sequels which often turned away from its most interesting person in order to spend time focusing on the comings and goings of its ensemble, which is fine in theory but a big problem when the rest of the ensemble is exceedingly dull.
But all of that is finished, now. The original trilogy is finished and we can move on to just Captain Jacks' continuing adventures, giving new director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") the freedom to focus on what works without having any inherited millstones hanging around his next in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."
Which is why it is extremely frustrating that Marshall, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the four screenwriters have decided to just repeat what has come before, warts and all.
When last we saw Jack he was off to discover the Fountain of Youth and fulfill his newfound desire never to have to face death again. Some odd number of years later he is still wandering the oceans without a ship and apparently without any real since of direction in an ironic metaphor for the film in general. He has so little to do in fact that he is willing to drop everything and help old friend Gibbs (Kevin McNally) out of a tight spot in a London court, from whom he learns of another Jack Sparrow out rounding up a crew.
It's not a bad start but it also has nothing to do with anything else that comes after except for introducing a huge amount of exposition in a haphazard and clumsy way. It's as if the filmmakers have taken Jack's constant haphazard drunk walk and decided to apply that to their storytelling in a sort of horrible metatextaual take on the modern swashbuckler.
The thing is, the writer's clearly understand Jack and what makes him tick – an incorrigible rouge cursed with a moral compass (a small one but one nonetheless) which he can't get rid of no matter how he tries – but they have no idea what to do with him. Whereas he was originally introduced as a man with one overriding goal that he focused on like a bullet and merely deceived his adversaries about his level of cluelessness (a kind of anti-Clouseau), he has now become the illusion he put up, a man who really does wander around cluelessly trying to find out what is going on and what he should do.
Unable to help himself or his ego, Jack seeks out the imposter and before you know it he is a prisoner of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and his less infamous daughter (Penélope Cruz) and is supposed to be leading them to the Fountain of Youth everyone believes he has already found. And they've got to hurry because they're racing a fleet of Spanish zealots and a British crown privateer, Jack's very own traitorous former first mate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).
The rest is a mishmash of what we've come to expect from a "Pirates" film, both the good and the bad. Depp and Rush are still great as the polar opposites of the pirate world. They chew up every piece of scenery they can get their hands on and the few scenes they get together are almost worth the price of admission. There are some brilliant set pieces, from a sword fight in the back of a tavern to a treasure ship from whence no gold can be removed or it will pitch off of the cliff it is perched precariously on.
And plenty of supernatural elements of course, which have gone from whispered stories which actually surprise people when they turn out to be true, to common knowledge which ever character in the story has some knowledge of (and must inevitably put that knowledge together to find what they're looking for). With that lack of surprise goes along a lack of wonder as well, which the screenwriter's try to make up for with increased over-the-top description about the dangers of mermaids or Blackbirds zombie crew men, none of which can match up to the build up and end up coming off anti-climactic as a result.
Though Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley don't return, they've brought in some replacement wooden twenty-year olds in the shape of a clergymen (Sam Claflin) and the mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) he is infatuated with. It's as if the filmmakers made a list of everything from the first films and just decided to repeat it for the new version with no given thought as to whether any of those ideas were good to begin with. And just as before the film grinds to a halt whenever Jack isn't around.
Worse yet, on occasion it grinds to a halt when he is as he has been saddled with repeating bad exposition and no real motivation. Why is he doing what he's doing? No one seems to know, least of all Jack and it's not a ruse this time, just bad storytelling.
"On Stranger Tides" isn't a bad film, but it's a waste and in many ways that is even worse. Jack Sparrow is an endlessly entertaining character, someone an endless film series could easily be built around. But no one wants to do that; they just want to keep repeating the bad ideas that don't work and covering up the good ones which do. The result is hopelessly muddled and despite being the shortest of the "Pirates" films is only barely worth the time.