Has Johnny Depp sold out? After two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels -- including the dreadful At World's End -- I was still willing to cut Depp some slack. After debuting in Craven's oneiric slasher milestone, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Depp flew under the radar; appearing in oddball Indies like Jarmusch's confounding revisionist Western, Dead Man, or slice-of-life character studies like Hallstrom's melancholic, small-town-malaise piece, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? And anyone who saw Depp's heartbreaking performance as the taciturn, adolescent Frankenstein, Edward Scissorhands, back in the early 90's knows: The guy had major talent from the beginning. So why did it take so long for this quirky, Method-chameleon to break into the A-list? Was it the parts he was offered or the parts he chose? In any case, 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl made Johnny Depp into, well, Johnny Depp -- the human cash-machine that has given studios a license to print money. But even so, few could argue that Depp wasn't born to play Captain Jack Sparrow, the wonderfully egotistical, half-drunk anti-hero of the high seas. Not since Errol Flynn played Captain Blood has a pirate been so enchanting. So how can you fault a guy for picking the perfect role? And with the middling follow-up, Dead Man's Chest, and even the disgraceful trilogy completer, At World's End, there was still a sense that Depp needed to see the character through. Yet now, with the series' retcon reboot, On Stranger Tides, I'm not willing to be as merciful.
Of course it's not Depp's fault that the new Pirates flick is a sleepy, uninspired product of utter convenience -- everything about this film stinks of boardroom laziness. Captain Jack, still escaping hangings from the boorishly incompetent East India Trading Company, ends up a captive on Black Beard (Ian McShane's) ship as it cruises around looking for the fountain of youth. The Spaniards are after it too, as are the Brits led by the treacherous Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who's gone loyalist. The added spice is Penelope Cruz as Angelica, a swords-woman with sensitivity who happens to be an old fling of Captain Jack's, and she might be Black Beard's daughter as well. Along the way they stop for mermaid tears -- the final ingredient in the fountain's magic recipe -- and are swarmed by a carnivorous school of flipper-footed Victoria Secret models. That scene may be the only one with a hint of originality. And when Sparrow and Barbossa team up temporarily, embers of life become briefly visible. The rest is mostly going through the motions -- carriage chases, apathetically choreographed sword fights -- and, curiously, a lot of mulling around. At 137 minutes, having to watch Sparrow and Black Beard debate for five about who has to jump from a waterfall into a rocky lagoon is just goddamn agonizing. Add some sappy, romantic subplot involving a captive mermaid and a boy-scout missionary and it's risible.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is big studio Hollywood working at its most artless and passionless. So has Johnny Depp sold out? Probably. Is it his fault that the film is such a dismal bore? Considering he's perfect for the part of Captain Jack -- and that Rob Marshall's direction is bloodless and the script is hackneyed -- no, not really. But considering the fact that this money-grubbing, stick-in-the-mud of a movie would never have gotten made in the first place without his participation, then yes, kinda.