Villains lose stature in ‘Stranger Tides’

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Repetitious, tedious and pretty much joyless, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” strains to reboot what was up until now a generally fun and always profitable cinematic enterprise. It’s a competent, energetic action romp, played with as much vigor as Johnny Depp can deliver, with a new spitfire (Penelope Cruz) as his female foil.

But the romping has lost much of its bounce.

New director Rob Marshall (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) serves up an endless succession of occasionally inventive escapes Capt. Jack Sparrow and his stunt team must manage. The longer this long movie goes on, the more wearying than thrilling they become.

And “Stranger Tides” is dark, literally. Please, Mr. Rob Marshall sir, can you spare a few more foot candles of light?

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Capt. Jack is in London, affecting the escape of his trusty first mate (Kevin McNally) from hanging, when he hears of a ship setting off for a favorite quarry of Jack’s — the Fountain of Youth. A couple of escapes, a carriage-roof chase through the streets and a swordfight or two later, he’s on board the ship of Edward Teach, “the pirate all pirates fear” — Blackbeard.

Ian McShane is well-cast as the infamous cutthroat, catching the baleful stare behind that alarming beard, which smoked thanks to embers of slowmatch the pirate stuck in its curls before his public appearances. On his bewitched ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard commands with sorcery and terror.

“If I don’t kill a man every now and then, they forget who I am,” he growls.

He needs Jack’s help to find the Fountain, because the Spanish (a seriously undeveloped menace) want to get there first. As does Jack’s old frenemy, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Barbossa has become a privateer in the Crown’s employ, and the change in his dress and demeanor (Jack calls him “Hector”) renders the character about as threatening as a poodle.

That’s a bit of an issue, because despite the fearful buildup for Blackbeard in the film’s first third and Teach’s grand entrance, he, too, grows less menacing with each appearance. You reduce your villain’s stature, the movie suffers.

Depp has been given to playing Capt. Jack as ever more impish, an Errol Flynn-meets-Liberace spin on the character. The Oscar-winning Cruz, as pirate girl Angelica, an ex-girlfriend, makes cracks about his manhood and crosses swords with him as equals.

“You walk like a girl!

“YOU would know!”

But they do a cute tango of seduction in one scene and their relationship has a fiery snap, at times.

“On Stranger Tides” isn’t remotely as strange as the last “Pirates.” It’s a pedestrian-looking film of extreme closeups, of shadows masking the many special effects.

It’s also a movie with mermaids, one of whom (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) falls, without much prompting, for the “missionary” (Sam Claflin) trapped on board ship with Blackbeard. There’s a third Oscar winner (joining Rush and Cruz), who has a tiny but funny cameo. And you have to stay after the credits to get a hint of what is to come.

Because whatever adventures and fresh supporting characters these Caribbean pirates plow through in two hours and almost 20 minutes, there’s always the promise — or threat — of more.

Film focus

WHAT: “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tide”

RATED: PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo

RATING: 2 stars

RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 18 minutes

Johnny Depp, left, Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, background appear in a scene from “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

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