Johnny Depp’s Pirates Sinks on the Riviera

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Peter Mountain / Disney / Reuters

Today two action films invaded the stately art house that is the Cannes Film Festival. In line with the Festival’s policy of keeping the slate of pictures competing for the Palme d’Or pure and rigorous, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the Chinese picture Wu Xia were relegated to Out of Competition slots. But each film generated plenty of attention. Pirates gave French folks out for a weekend promenade a chance to see Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz walk up the 23 red-carpeted steps into the Grand Palais screening. And Wu Xia is just a damn fine movie, with a clean vigor to its live-action martial artistry that makes Kung Fu Panda, by comparison, look like Kung Fu Pander. Here, Richard Corliss offers his thoughts on a blockbuster-to-be. In the next post, Mary Corliss will review the blockbuster-that-ought-to-be. 


The foppish brigand Jack Sparrow (Depp) is searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth described by Ponce de León, and asks his scurvy dad Capt. Teague (Keith Richards) if he’s ever encountered that mythical pool of regeneration. Teague sneers, “Does this face look as though it’s been to the Fountain of Youth?” and Jack, after a pause, replies tactfully, “Depends on the light.”

The fiery Angelica (Cruz), every curvy inch Jack’s equal in wooing and marauding, accuses Jack of having take erotic advantage in an earlier encounter. “How could you say I used you?” Jack sputters. Angelica: “You know very well how. Jack: “Yes, but how could you say so?”

Toward the end, Jack executes some daredevil maneuver requiring a bit more courage than he’s accustomed to mustering. “Everyone see that?” he asks the onlookers. “Because I will not be doing that again.”

And there, ladies and rogues, are the three brief flashes of wit in the 2hr.17min. fourth episode of Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pirates of the Caribbean cash cow. Based on one of the tamer Disneyland rides, the original film in 2003 boasted a bright insouciance that revived the swashbuckling genre once inhabited by Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Two heavily laden sequels followed, and by 2007 the three films had purloined $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office. That, not any need to expand the basic story or enrich the characters, guaranteed this slow-moving vessel that sends Sparrow swanning across the high seas after a four-year absence.

With Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine) replacing Gore Verbinski at the directorial helm, and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio aboard again as scriptwriters, On Stranger Tides has Jack tangling with his old nemesis Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and two new privateers, the fearsome Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his first mate and possible daughter Angelica. On the way they encounter a naïve young preacher (Sam Claflin) and kidnap a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) — Stranger Tides’ token young lovers.

Walking down the Croisette after seeing the movie, I ran into Richard Peña, who runs the New York Film Festival. “Why so glum, chum?” he asked. I must have worn a scowl, since nothing depresses me more than a movie designed for no other purpose than to give familiar pleasure. If I bear a grudge against this Pirates, it’s because its caretakers have frittered away the buoyancy of the original film. Stranger Tides doesn’t rethink and reboot the franchise, as Fast Five did for the Fast and Furious series. Instead, it plays like an episode of a long-running sitcom in its seventh-season, autopilot phase. It lumbers through most of its action set-pieces, and the addition of 3-D in some scenes sparks only the corniest of sword-in-your-tummy effects. The mood is leaden and perfunctory, as if most of the folks involved were laborers in a Chinese factory, knowing that if they make a product, no matter how slipshod, people will buy it.

“I am just as bent as ever,” Sparrow proclaims. “Hellishly so.” Depp’s acting is indeed bent, ever teetering like a vaudeville-sketc drunk, but an elegant one. In the vivacious first chapter, the roguish coquettry of Depp’s performace was the wild card, as the other actors (Rush, Jonathan Pryce, Keira Knightley and Whatever-Happened-to-Orlando Bloom) played it more or less straight, faithful to the demands of this antique genre. Here, though, his eccentric style has moved to the center; virtually all the male actors are as fruity as our Prince of Tides, and poncier than Ponce de León. Gone is the scurvy majesty Rush exuded in earlier episodes; now he growls like a Regency fop with dyspepsia. That gigantic, magnificent actor Richard Griffiths seems ready to explode with sneering pomposity as King George. Other top British stars are wasted: Roger Allam in a courtier role, Judi Dench in a 10-second cameo. Cruz (who, like Dench, graced Marshall’s ill-fated Nine) looks great and finally shows how her Latina allure might fit into Hollywood superproductions; but at today’s showing in the vast Lumière Theatre, her thick Spanish accent often was muffled under Hans Zimmer’s pounding score.

In the years since the first Pirates, Depp’s career has made its own sea change. Before 2003 he was the dreamboat of gnarly, indie-minded films like Benny & Joon, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Tim Burton’s Edwartd Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his own fascinatingly obscure directorial effort The Brave, which played here in 1997 and was hardly seen again. Depp occasionally honors his weirder roots, in films like Sweeney Todd and Public Enemies; but since he lucked into the Pirates smash, he has been concentrating on movies for kids — perhaps for the entertainment of his own children with French actress Vanessa Paradis. Like a fond dad, he might want to make enough money to put his children through college. With the bundle he’s made from Pirates, though, Depp could buy one for them. So now it’s time for him to again lavish his talent on films for grownups, and not pre-school pabulum like On Stranger Tides.