After sinking into self-important tedium with its prior two overstuffed installments, Pirates of the Caribbean seemed destined for permanent burial at sea. And yet the soggy franchise and Johnny Depp's foppish rapscallion return again for On Stranger Tides—to search for the fountain of youth, no less, a quest that Chicago director Rob Marshall (taking the helm from Gore Verbinski) embellishes with the usual gaggle of musty ships-and-sabers tropes and cacophonous CGI. No knowledge of the first three Pirates films is required for this fourth, mist-enshrouded go-around, in which Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) reluctantly teams with his former flame, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), and her iconic baddie daddy, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), to reach the legendary fountain before English king–employed Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). The plot delivers rescues from prison, foolhardy mutinies, redemption-preaching missionaries, and carnivorous mermaids, yet it feels strained in both its tense, romantic repartee and in its rollicking centerpieces, as Marshall shoots Jack and Angelica's maiden duel with invigorating clarity and rhythm before succumbing to his typical edited-to-ribbons incoherence. With its hero a once-inspired creation now far less funny than he fancies himself, the swashbuckling series—from Depp's fey bon mots to a cameoing Keith Richards' scraggly visage—is showing its age.
Depp and Cruz wade through franchise history.
Opens at Cinerama and other theaters, Fri., May 20. Rated PG-13. 127 minutes.