Johnny Depp stars in 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

In search of the Fountain of Youth, Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow embarks on another adventure in 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.'

Peter Mountain/Disney/AP
In this film publicity image released by Disney, Johnny Depp, left, Penelope Cruz, right, and Ian McShane, background are shown in a scene from, " Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."

Since I am still recovering from “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” – is it over yet? – I can’t say I was much in the mood for "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” On the other hand, there was no place to go but up – way up – and so I can cheerfully report that I only glanced at my watch about 20 times, as opposed to 200 times for its predecessor.

Part of the reason for this, however, may be because this new installment in the unceasing “Pirates” franchise is in 3-D, and wearing those glasses makes it’s much more difficult to look at your watch.

In a pleasant change of pace, this sequel isn’t altogether incomprehensible. I could actually follow the story, such as it is; in fact, I was often one step ahead of the story. There are few shocks to the system here. Even the “surprise” appearance of Keith Richards, as the scurvy father of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, has already been hyped to death in the advance press.

Richards is no less welcome for that. Depp is on record as crediting the rocker as the model for Jack’s tottering body language, and seeing the two of them together, each trying to outdo the other’s wigginess, is blissfully funny. Plus Richards has the best line in the movie. There aren’t all that many good ones.

Rob Marshall, who previously directed “Chicago” and “Nine,” appears to have approached “Pirates” as a species of musical, minus the musical numbers. The sword fights and mutinies and all the rest of the yo-ho-ho-ing are choreographed to the max. He keeps things moving without turning the film into a perpetual-motion machine on steroids. (I wasn’t kidding. Is “At World’s End” over yet?)

The plot centers on the search for the fabled Fountain of Youth. This is a search many people of a certain age (i.e., over 30) in Hollywood are already quite familiar with. Jack now faces not only an old adversary – Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), returned from the dead and working for His Majesty’s Royal Navy – but a brand-new bad guy: Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose crew consists of zombies.

There’s also Blackbeard’s daughter, Angelica, who has a fraught history with Jack and is definitely not a zombie. She is supposedly a master of disguises, but since she is played by Penélope Cruz, whose beauty is impossible to disguise even beneath false moustaches and an overload of greasepaint, her specialty was lost on me.

Cruz is clearly in the movie to spice things up, but things are still pretty chaste throughout. Maybe that’s because Cruz was pregnant during filming or, more likely, it’s because Marshall and his screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, no doubt taking their cue from überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, have been careful to keep things kid-friendly. Of the four “Pirates” movies, “On Stranger Tides” seems the least strange. (The most outré sequence features a bevy of mermaids, who seem to have washed in from a La Jolla swimsuit competition.)

Previously Depp played Jack with more than a hint of goosey depravity. Here he mostly mugs. Perhaps he no longer feels the need to extend himself. For too long now Depp, one of our most audacious actors, has coasted on playing bizarro characters – Jack, Willie Wonka, the Mad Hatter. He’s amusing in these films, occasionally daring, but one longs for him to reenter the real world. He’s turning into a stunt actor.

With further sequels already in the works, and billions more to be made, I would nevertheless like to point out that the wind went out of these pirate ship sails a long time ago. In olden times, movies didn’t get sequelized beyond two or three installments. Now it’s the gift that keeps on giving – even if the gift box is empty. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality, and innuendo.)

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