March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Johnny Depp swaggers and staggers again as Captain Jack Sparrow in an OK 'Pirates' spinoff


It used to be that supporting characters were the ones who
landed spinoffs of hit shows. Remember how Rhoda and Phyllis went from being
Mary Tyler Moore’s quirky friends to having showcases of their own? Or when the
outspoken Maude and the movin’-on-up Jeffersons made their marks on “All in the
Family” and then made it big with self-titled series shortly thereafter?

But it’s the ever-unsteady, bobble-headed Captain Jack
Sparrow, unarguably the main attraction of the “Pirates of the Caribbean”
franchise, who has been propelled out of the original trilogy and into — what
should we call it?: A postscript? A sequel? A footnote? An afterword? —
“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

The less charitable might label the project as another trip
to the barn to milk the old cash cow; Sparrow’s millions of followers are
probably more enthusiastic. Either way, “Tides” retains the flaky spirit and
eye-appealing visuals of the “Pirates” pictures without having to lug around
the mythological baggage that piled up in the last two-thirds of the series.

While Sparrow (portrayed once more with winning wooziness by Johnny Depp, who has once again O.D.'d on eyeliner) is reunited with his old nemesis, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush),
and there is talk of the fate of Jack’s former vessel, the Black Pearl, you won’t
hear even a fleeting mention of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) or Elizabeth Swann
(Keira Knightley), much less an update on the tentacle-faced Davy Jones (Bill

Perhaps “Tides” is technically a reboot that retains the
same star. Or maybe it’s the cinematic equivalent of “Archie Bunker’s Place,”
in which the centerpiece of “All in the Family” was spotlighted in a show that
grew out of the show he had just finished.

Let’s put it this way: If you love the first three “Pirates”
installments, “Tides” will probably suit you fine. If you didn’t go bonkers for
the buccaneers the first time around, it’s unlikely you’ll be swept away by
“Tides,” either.
Enjoyable enough and reasonably energetic — keep an eye out
for cameos from Keith Richards and Judi Dench, of all people — “Tides” still sometimes
feels like a project that falls slightly short of its ambitions.

Even so, it’s hard to resist the reteaming of Depp and
Penelope Cruz, who were an incendiary couple in the 2001 drug drama “Blow.” If Cruz’s
role as Angelica, a seafaring siren who was once seduced and abandoned by
Sparrow, isn’t exactly a test of her talents, she does seem to enjoy having a
chance to spar and strike sparks with Depp once again. It’s also somewhat
interesting to see that screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio allow
Angelica to engage in some rather brutal behavior without actually tossing her
in with the story’s real villains. The rationale is that she’s trying to win
favor with Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the supremely sadistic commander of Queen
Anne’s Revenge, a ship that’s kept in shape by a zombified crew of mutants.
That’s not the only trick Blackbeard has up his shaggy sleeves: His wicked way
of wielding an enchanted cutlass gives new meaning to the term “sword and

Blackbeard, Angelica, Barbossa and, perhaps to a lesser
degree, Sparrow are determined to locate the Fountain of Youth that was once
the obsession of Ponce de Leon. Finding the fountain, however, is not as
challenging as lining up the necessary items for the ritual that must be
performed in order for the waters to work their magic, which means that we get
complications a-plenty before most of the cast congregates in a ruined jungle
temple that might be located in a forgotten corner of Jurassic Park.

"Tides" threatens to break the two-and-a-half-hour mark, although even with so much time on its hands there still seem to be elements and ideas that got short shrift.  The caustic
camaraderie of Sparrow and Angelica is delightful, but the story keeps them
separated for too long. The zombie sailors and the treacherous mermaids are
exciting concepts that don’t seem fully developed. Similarly, when Barbossa and
Sparrow have to move carefully while plundering a grounded ship that’s
teetering precariously on the edge of a chasm, the scene comes to an abrupt end
just as it seems to be building up comic steam.

As for the extra jolt of romance that’s supposed to come
from the forbidden love between a hunky man of faith (Sam Claflin) and an
imprisoned mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), this combination isn’t exactly as
effervescent as Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah in “Splash.” Director Rob Marshall ("Chicago," "Memoirs of a Geisha") can't give this "serious" subplot the necessary weight it would need to work; he's much more in his element supervising the elaborate action sequences -- particularly the rousing first encounter between Sparrow and Angelica. Aside from the 3D effects that are frequently obscured by murkiness and fuzziness, the movie is easy to watch (and whatever you do, stick around through the lengthy end credits for a genuinely amusing "stinger" involving one of the central characters.)

In the end, "Tides" is not unlike any randomly chosen episode of "Rhoda" or "Phyllis" or "Maude" or "The Jeffersons" or "Archie Bunker's Place": It has a few laughs, delivers more or less what you expect, and is likely to be long forgotten before the next one comes along.