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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"A pirate's life for me!"


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, to hear most folks tell it, not a very good movie at all. Most reaction I've seen has ranged from tepid to outright negative, but then, I've seen very little reaction to this movie from people who didn't hate Dead Man's Chest and At World's End. I've almost got the impression that folks are teeing off on On Stranger Tides because they didn't get enough chance to talk about how much they hated those two films as well, but never mind that.

I thought On Stranger Tides was terrific. I enjoyed the living hell out of it, and I've been trying to figure out why my reaction to the film is so different from everyone else's. I suppose a big part of it is simply that I love these characters sufficiently that I'm more willing to go where they take me than others. I further suppose it's partly because I don't really see these movies as telling any kind of ongoing story, and certainly not the ongoing story of Jack Sp--Captain Jack Sparrow. I don't think that Jack Sparrow has an ongoing story.

This is contra, for example, Michael May, whose thoughts I deeply respect, but who was disappointed in the film:

The movie is very silly and cartoony, but that might have been forgivable had it actually done what it was supposed to do: continue the story of Captain Jack Sparrow. When last we left Jack, he’d become a kinder pirate and we do see that reflected in On Stranger Tides. But that’s what he grew into in the last trilogy. For his story to be worth continuing, he needs to go somewhere new.

The journey promised by At World’s End is Jack’s quest for immortality. He died in Dead Man’s Chest and was terrified of repeating the experience. It drove everything he did in At World’s End and made sense of his quest for the Fountain of Youth. But as Stranger Tides opens, Jack’s pretty much given up the quest and has to be pulled back into it. There’s no personal urgency to his finding it. Instead, he fills a role much like he did in the original trilogy: running around making things more interesting for the characters who actually have story arcs.

See...I'm not sure that's right. I don't think that Jack was terrified of death (beyond a normal sense of self-preservation). What's always motivated Jack has never been immortality; if he wanted that, he could have pocketed a coin from the Aztec treasure at the end of Curse of the Black Pearl and enjoyed his immortality that way. Of course, the movie established that that kind of immortality sucked, but then, he was hip to try to take Davy Jones's place as Captain of the Flying Dutchman. Why was this? He'd be immortal, right?

But he didn't want to be Captain of the Dutchman because he wanted to be immortal. He wanted to be Captain of the Dutchman because what always motivate Jack was freedom, and he defines freedom as being the Captain of a ship. Jack wasn't trying to avoid death in DMC and AWE, so much as he was trying to avoid being pressed into Davy Jones's servitude. He owed Jones a century of servitude; if he wanted long life, he could have simply taken Jones up on the offer. After all, a hundred years is unheard of for someone in Jack's line of work, right? So why didn't he just do that?

Because Jack wanted to be free, and that meant being Captain and having a ship.

There's a moment in AWE that illustrates this. Jack indicates to Will Turner that he wants to stab Jones's heart and become Captain of the Dutchman, to which Will responds, "But then you have to do the job, Jack. You have to ferry the dead, or you become like Jones." Jack's response is less than enthusiastic, so even that isn't ideal, because even though he'd be Captain, he still wouldn't be free. Jack is all about total freedom. Of course, at the end of AWE, he is willing to do the deed anyway, because it's the only way he'll ever be free of Davy Jones...until he realizes he must do something selfless and let Will Turner stab the heart.

Jack certainly does fear death to some degree, but when he realizes that there's no other alternative, he embraces it head on: he puts his hat back on, says "Hello, beastie!", and charges the Kraken. That's interesting to me, as is the scene in AWE when he is clearly sad that the Kraken is dead. Jack Sparrow is sensibly scared of death. But he's terrified at the prospect of living a life without freedom, living on someone's terms other than his own.

So, then, is Jack really planning to go after the Fountain of Youth at the end of At World's End? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure it really matters. What matters is that he already figures that Captain Barbossa is going to ditch him again. Is he going after the Fountain, or is he only keeping the charts as future leverage? We don't really find out, but in On Stranger Tides, Jack isn't really motivated by a desire to find the Fountain at all, except as a way of getting himself away from the current batch of miscreants who have literally shanghai'd him into their service. Jack finds himself in servitude aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge, which is once again an intolerable situation – so he immediately begins to plan a mutiny.

As On Stranger Tides ends, Jack is once again without a ship and planning on how to get one. Some have complained about this, but I rather like it. I'm coming to see Captain Jack Sparrow not as a character whom I need to see growing and changing all the time; I see him more as a character whose situations simply don't allow for him to grow much at all. I see him in similar light to James Bond. Aside from a very few films, James Bond doesn't grow or change much at all in the course of the series, and that's fine because no one expects him to, and when he finally does, the result is extremely notable. I like the usual trajectory for Jack Sparrow: he's cleverer by far than the people around him, but he's still somehow always watching his ship sailing away without him, or being dragged to the bottom of the sea by a Kraken, or being shrunk down so it can fit inside a bottle. I'm just not sure that I want to see Jack Sparrow changing; I'm not sure that I need to learn in great detail about what motivates him. I don't think he's that kind of character, any more than James Bond is, or, to take another recent pop-culture Jack, 24's Jack Bauer. Now there's a guy who is in similar circumstances to Jack Sparrow: he can never escape his lot in life, and he's constantly being dragged into adventures that maybe he'd just as soon not have. Of course, Bauer's a lot more morose about it than Sparrow.

Another similar character is Brad Pitt's Tristan Ludlow, from Legends of the Fall; Tristan doesn't change much at all over the years of his story, either, and at film's end, our narrator describes him as "the rock that everyone broke themselves against". That's Jack Sparrow.

So, on its own, how is On Stranger Tides? I, personally, loved it. I found it full of good old swashbuckling fun, and I loved that it didn't take itself nearly as seriously as its immediate two predecessor films did (as much as I loved those). The way the film gradually pulls us into its story was terrific – there's an impostor in London, claiming to be Captain Jack Sparrow and recruiting sailors. Obviously Jack is intrigued by this and investigates, in the course of freeing his first mate Mr. Gibbs from the gallows and escaping the King's men and finding himself in audience with the King himself and escaping the King's men again. As is typical, Jack does all this with varying degrees of success. Soon he's in a race against other pirates, the King's royal navy, and the Spaniards for the Fountain of Youth – which Jack isn't that enthusiastic about seeking out to begin with.

The film's major weakness is a subplot involving a captive Catholic priest on board Blackbeard's ship, and his love story with a mermaid who is captured because it turns out that in order to take advantage of the Fountain of Youth, one needs a freshly-shed mermaid's tear. I loved that little detail, but the film is so stuffed full of other things going on that the priest is only along to save the mermaid at the end. His character is pretty expendable, and he really could have been set aside; maybe Jack could set the mermaid free, thus showing us his usually-hidden selfless side. I also liked that the mermaids are really quite strange sea creatures, but aside from a single set-piece, they really don't amount to much in the film. I'd have liked to have seen more of them.

And then there's Angelica Malon, played by Penelope Cruz. She's an old flame of Jack's, who has turned to piracy for reasons of her own. As underdrawn as the Catholic priest is as a character, Angelica is perfectly pitched. She's almost a female Jack Sparrow, trustworthy at times and untrustworthy at others, and strongly motivated. The film leaves her fate wide open, and I do hope that she features again in the adventures of Jack Sparrow.

A couple other random notes about On Stranger Tides:

:: The score isn't as good as AWE, but it does add Spanish guitar to the proceedings, which is a nice touch. I've grown to really like the music for these films, which show that you don't need to take a Korngoldian approach to scoring a pirate movie.

:: The Pirates films are all beautifully photographed, and this one's no different. Rob Marshall takes over directing responsibilities for Gore Verbinski this time out, and he did a pretty good job, especially in the action sequences. I've come to really appreciate directors who are able to shoot action in such a way that you can tell what's going on. Verbinski was very good in that way, and Marshall keeps that going.

:: If the Black Pearl was sunk in battle, I really hope that sailors Pintel and Ragetti either survived or weren't on board. (Those are the short bald guy and the tall thin one-eyed guy from the first three films. The piratical C-3PO and R2-D2, in other words.)

:: Nowhere in On Stranger Tides does anyone mention rum; nor does Jack ever inquire as to why the rum is always gone.

:: I don't really care that the Pirates films cheerfully do whatever they want with the geography and geology of the Caribbean.

:: I wonder what seafaring bits of lore will be mined for the next Pirates movie? Maybe Jack Sparrow can have an encounter with a giant white whale. I suppose he could find Atlantis, or maybe the lost Templar fleet. Who knows?

(By the way, I can't recommend highly enough Michael May's thoughts on Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest, and At World's End. Those are terrific posts, on the subject of character development in the first three PotC films. He has interesting thoughts as to who the main character of that trilogy is, and I'm inclined to agree with him.)

5 comments:

Jason said...

For what it's worth, I liked OST as well, and for many of the same reasons. It's a fun, fairly straightforward romp. And Penelope Cruz in pirate clothes is yummy.

Call me Paul said...

Planning to see On Stranger Tides this weekend, so I'm glad to read a positive review of it. I often think pro reviewers are looking for too much in a movie. Can't we just enjoy a blockbuster action flick without digging for deeper meanings?

Michael May said...

REALLY interesting thoughts. You've got me wanting to re-watch all four now with a different eye on Jack.

As I said in my own reviews, I enjoyed Jack as an unchangeable character in Black Pearl and was hoping and expecting for him to stay that way throughout the series. It was the second and third movies that surprised me by introducing some character development.

I think I wrote my Stranger Tides review after seeing it the first time and I was disappointed at having my expectations thwarted that they were going to continue Jack's story. I've since seen the movie a second time and - better understanding that Jack's role in the story was supporting - focused more on Angela. That helped me enjoy it more (even though there are still some plot and drama decisions that I scratch my head over).

Anyway, excellent review. I loved thinking about the movie again from a different perspective.

Kal said...

I loved this one too. Geoffry Rush is just at his best at Barbossa. It was a treat listening to him tell the story about how he lost the 'Black Pearl' and totally upstaged Johnny Depp for those few minutes. I think even Depp was rendered speechless from that scene. Ian McShane is who he always is but for once the filmmakers didn't have him turn good and punk out at the end. He was a consistant son of a bitch throughout the film and I liked that. I also can't get the monkey swinging in the bottle the 'Black Pearl' is trapped in out of my mind.

Call me Paul said...

Well, that was bloody awful! I've just reread your post above, and for the record, I agree with everything you said about Cap'n Jack Sparrow. Doesn't change the fact that this movie was a dog's breakfast. The plot, thin as it was, was muddled and unnecessarily convoluted, and at times downright incomprehensible. The little bits of story existed for no other purpose than to get from one action set piece to another, which might have been OK, had not the action scenes been terribly derivative of the previous three movies. There was virtually no reference to the previous three movies at all. The entire back story for this one took place at some indeterminate time between the third film and this one, and had to be explained to us with awful expositionary scenes that did little to advance the plot - rather they just allowed us to tread water so we didn't feel completely lost. I frowned through the entire veiwing. As per my last comment, I rarely dislike a film as much as this. I'm usually the first one to give a less than a-one movie a break. But I really did not enjoy this movie. And I DID like the previous two.