rating: 2.5

(After my review in Cannes, OWF's Shaun Munro turns in his piece from a London press screening which says everything I did but smarter and in fewer words) Few among us will confess to having actually wanted a fourth entry into the Pirates of the Caribbean series, if not thanks to the calamitous manner in which the series "ended" with the bloated mess that was At World's End, then simply because how many good fourth entries into a series can you name? While not as execrably dull or insufferably long as the third entry, On Stranger Tides lacks even a basic sense of invention and is keen simply to milk the cash cow for another round, despite an expectedly strong production design and stellar work from the cast. It's strictly business as usual for the series here; the charming rogue Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) finds himself on the wrong end of the law, and through a zany escape, lands himself in a larger scheme, this time encountering an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who leads him on a quest to find the fabled Fountain of Youth. Along the way, Sparrow has a run-in with Angelica's father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who is himself after the Fountain, and finds in an old enemy, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), a new ally of sorts. Essentially On Stranger Tides is an exercise in slinging as much at the screen as possible and hoping that some of it sticks. After a surprisingly stolid opening act - in which the dominoes simply take too long to fall into place, while featuring a disarmingly brief cameo from Judi Dench - the film does at least benefit from the ever-welcome presence of Depp's much-loved protagonist; the film is in its best moments the Johnny Depp show, yet the meek screenplay lacks the necessary wit which propelled at least the first two entries of the series. While there are attempts at humour a-plenty, the script feels manufactured by committee, and thus its very soul feels crass and mechanised; this is curiously benign even for the undemanding standards of blockbusters, despite good efforts from a cast, for, frankly, who can blame Depp for taking the $55m payday? While the Orlando Bloom-Keira Knightley pairing was precisely nobody's favourite thing about the previous three films - Depp resolutely runs the show - their presence here is curiously missed, for their veritable replacements - Sam Claffin's kind-hearted missionary and €strid Bergès-Frisbey's troubled mermaid character - are simply not infused with the same regard for character, again, thanks to the messy script, which fails to make us feel much for them or care much at all about their romance. Their piecemeal inclusion reeks of a studio-mandate revision, while the actors, trying hard though they do, can't find much to work with here. In addition to this, numerous supporting characters from the previous films, who in small ways added much to the series' very charm, are conspicuously absent, such as Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg's bumbling pirate characters, while again, little effort has been made to adequately fill the resulting charm defecit. But the film at least delivers on the spectacle front, surely? On Stranger Tides boasts an immaculate production for sure - stunning costumes, grand locales, elaborate visual effects - yet without an engaging and exciting story, what use is it? While the premise can be summarised rather easily, it ultimately feels a whole lot more exhausting and contrived simply because of how unsettled and uneasily the film fleets between various tangents; the result denies the film the epic set pieces that characterised the previous entries - even the third one - and instead we get too much talking with too little wit, and a cast treading water amid an unworthy screenplay. Fun though it is to see actors like Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz hamming it up to the nines, their enthusiasm simply isn't met by a willing script. With the stakes seemingly really quite meaningless by the end, and a half-baked effort to leave things open for part five, On Stranger Tides feels like a warmed-up, cobbled-together sequel made with the sheer purpose of lining some pockets while turning in inferior product. It is, however, a good deal shorter than the last film, which is commendable, yet the plot drags enough while fatally lacking action, such that you'll probably find yourself staring at your watch far too often. Depp and co. give it plenty of gusto, and Rob Marshall's direction follows consistently from Gore Verbinski's work in the previous three, but this is as charmless and desperate as you can expect any fourth film in a series to be. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is released on Wednesday.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at]