For the fourth time in eight years, Johnny Depp dips into his private treasure chest, a high-yielding career asset known as the Pirates of the Caribbean cinematic theme park. Depp earns his keep swanning around as Captain Jack Sparrow, the role that brought him the first of three Oscar nominations. It takes a thespian to pretend there is anything new to find about this pirate king in eye shadow and dreads.
What is new about On Stranger Tides is the director. Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) steps in for Gore Verbinski who staged the first three epics, and he commendably trims the fat. At 128 minutes, Pirates 4 is the shortest yet. The three previous chapters — 148 minutes, 151 minutes and 168 minutes, respectively — grew exponentially in bloat. Marshall also has a lighter touch. It's hilarious that Jack and his old enemy Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, going gloriously whole hog in the ham department), are both searching for the mythic Fountain of Youth. If ever a franchise needed a spritz from that spout, you're looking at it.
Still, Marshall can't work miracles or shake the house producer Jerry Bruckheimer built. It helps that Marshall made the empty shells played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley walk the plank and replaced them with Ian McShane as the infamous Blackbeard and a lushly beautiful Penelope Cruz (she was pregnant during shooting) as his fiery daughter. And look out for a chillingly staged 3D attack of mermaids, even scarier with their nipples airbrushed out. Nice touch, Disney. But way before midpoint, Pirates 4 is infected with the repetitive action and blathering incoherence that scuttled its predecessors. Marshall deserves props for putting the "show" back into the Pirates business. But face it, he's polishing a giant turd.