It would be unrealistic to expect a tent-pole franchise to revitalize itself on its fourth go-round. But it really doesn't make much sense to speak in terms of the "realistic" when it comes to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series, which trades on the outlandish and has a mincing ruffle-feather (Johnny Depp) as its reliable ace in the cargo hold. The good news, as these things go, is that there was nowhere to go but up after Pirates 3: At World's End, a lot of sound and fury signifying utter contempt for an audience that was going to queue up anyway.
A reboot was in order. Original trilogy director Gore Verbinski went off to direct Rango (good move); Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are gone (instant charisma boost); and the reins have been handed to Chicago director Rob Marshall (uh-oh). Actually, though, it works out fairly well. On Stranger Tides isn't a return to the grand form of the first Pirates, which will always have the element of surprise, but it's certainly equal to the underrated second.
This time around, Captain Jack has been conscripted into a search for the mythical Fountain of Youth. Who duped him? Cherchez la femme. Former lover Angelica (Penélope Cruz, Latin-spitfiring it yet again) has kidnapped Sparrow and delivered him to Blackbeard (Deadwood's Ian McShane), who needs Jack's special brand of drunken slurring and swashbuckling insouciance to help him avoid death at the hands of a one-legged assailant. Also in the mix: Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who since we last saw him, has lost a leg. The plot thickens!
Marshall, who knows from both choreography and the simple joys of music stings and scenery-chewing thespians, keeps things fleet of foot — even if, as is the syndrome these days, On Stranger Tides is way too long for such a throwaway entertainment. Depp, as usual, steps back into the role of Sparrow as if he were reprising a weekly sitcom. (It's best to think of the franchise as an old-school serial.) But Rush, fresh off his King's Speech triumph, is the MVP here. Without undue showboating, Rush has outfitted this supporting character with a thick husk of grizzled attitude while retaining an air of genuine menace — a decidedly un-Disneylike anarchy he can summon when the occasion calls for it. It's difficult to imagine where a prospective Pirates 5 would sail, but a Barbossa spin-off? That just might be worth a launch.