Sometimes an actor finds a role that becomes his second self, so precisely does he embody it, and so identified does he become with it. William Powell had Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN series. Basil Rathbone became Sherlock Holmes to a couple of generations. Johnny Depp has Captain Jack Sparrow. Unlike Powell or Rathbone, Depp was able to start from scratch creating the addled pirate with a flair for hair-raising escapes and larger-than-life adventures. Eyes kohled with wild abandon, hair living its own complicated life atop his head, and a swagger that is more mince than menace, he is an original that despite the improbable components, is as engaging a scoundrel, much less an action hero, as ever graced the screen. In the fourth installment of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, this one subtitled ON STRANGER TIDES, the perpetually endangered Sparrow is involved with a quest for the fountain of youth, appeasing Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the pirate other pirates fear, fending off old menace Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and dealing with an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who, thanks to Sparrows leading her into temptation, has graduated from convent to swashbuckling. Its all an excuse for high seas hi-jinks and a gaggle of special effects that keep things moving at a breakneck pace, even over the sagging bits. There are a lot of those.
Things start in London with a bang, and a puckish cameo by Judy Dench, as Sparrow escapes from a royal enclave using only his wits, a linen napkin, and a cream puff. Plumbing the mystery of a Sparrow doppelganger land him into more swordplay and a voyage helmed by Blackbeard himself, a pirate with a short fuse and a mastery of the dark arts, on a ship kept in line by officers that have been zombified. On Blackbeards trail is Barbossa, using his privateering license to find the fountain and pick off any treasure on the high seas on the way. Ahead of all of them is the Spanish king, who is also interested in the fountain. Nothing is simple. Nothing is easy. All of it is fun, including the unexpected mating habits of mermaids, and novel uses for palm trees. Through it all, Depp, sporting a look of guilty confusion that gives way to preening self-satisfaction before returning to the confusion that is Sparrows natural state, soars with the sheer force of his personality. Through scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor, scenes that make no sense even in context, and a subplot about a minister that was full of promise, but fulfilled with only the obvious joke about a missionarys position, Depps vibrancy overpowers them all with a sense of the absurd that makes everyone else the butt of the joke that only he and the audience are in on.
This being a flick produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, there are explosions of an epic nature, but there are also magical water effects, and Geoffrey Rush gloating over poison dart frogs. Alas, ON STRANGER TIDES is a messy piece of storytelling. There is also a prop that looks an awful lot like one of the time portals from the original Star Trek. There are two choices. One is irritation that nothing really makes sense, including the subtitle. The other is to lower expectations and enjoy Jack Sparrow, who is, after all, the only reason the franchise made it past the first film.