Depp and Cruz entertain in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

New director Rob Marshall simplifes the Pirates formula — and it works.

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I've been talking with people all week about whether the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie (this one subtitled On Stranger Tides) would be any good. I was thinking it would hopefully be the Return of the Jedi of the great Pirates movies. You know, the one that's not as good as the other but still contains most of the charm that made the earlier films such huge hits. Some folks told me that I was way off, and that Pirates 4 would be more like one of the god awful Star Wars prequels — primarily the one that starred Jar Jar Binks. But when the 3D glasses finally went on and the lights came down, I instantly realized we were all wrong.

The fourth Pirates movie has a different director (Rob Marshall) than the previous three (Gore Verbinski), and yet it doesn't feel like a leftover. In fact, On Stranger Tides sheds the greater story arc of the previous films, making it (in this respect, at least) the A New Hope of the series.

Tides begins with another grand entrance of the great Jack … uhh, excuse me, Captain Jack Sparrow. He's up to his usual antics, getting in trouble and smarting his way out. This time, he meets a sexy female pirate (Penelope Cruz) that he has some history with before getting entangled with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and the navies of Britain and Spanish — all of whom are looking for the fountain of youth.

I overheard someone say of Tides: "I hope you weren't looking for depth in this movie." They're right; Tides doesn't have nearly as many story threads as the previous film in the series, At World's End. But by simplifying the story (and dropping major characters played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly), director Marshall has greatly helped the pacing and character development.

And each character is thoroughly enjoyable. Depp has never been better as the fey-Keith-Richards wannabe who always ends up in the middle of feuding factions. Penelope Cruz is a solid match for Captain Jack, both with her wit and the quality of her sword play. You also have Captain Barbossa, played brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush, who's my favorite character throughout the series. (He gets the best character arc, and makes the most of it.) This film also introduces the villainous Blackbeard, played by Ian McShane with a swaggering ease. He's a great bad guy, but an even better pirate. There's also a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who adds a small but totally satisfying love story. (She's no demure Ariel, either.)

All these characters are written and interpreted well, but they exist mostly to provide foils for Depp to play with — and play he does. Tides keeps the comedy of the earlier films, but executes it even better. (There's one joke about a missionary that had me in tears). It's also occasionally dark, and pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating through plenty of sexual tension between Cruz and Depp (and the sexy mermaid). There's also some great action scenes, elaborate sword fights — oh, and the zombies. As such, Tides isn't for little kids, but it's something teenagers and young adults will love.

I have to say that I loved Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It's somewhere between the first and second films in terms of quality. The filmmakers remember that in the end, they're making a a film based on a theme park ride, and they deliver tons of fun thanks to the amazing characters and settings they put on screen. If you are looking for that fun popcorn flick with action, wit and sex appeal, look no further than the latest Pirates adventure.

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