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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides review

Clearly damned to roam the seas churning out pirate films for all eternity – or until his contract runs out, whichever comes sooner – Johnny Depp inevitably returns as fancy-dress comedy buccaneer Jack Sparrow for Disney’s fourth instalment of Mild Piratical Peril. Because as long as the doubloons keep rolling in, the money-spinning formula will continue to be applied...

This year’s result, as sure as eggs is eggs, is another wacky race against time to retrieve some sort of thing everyone wants, framing another collection of vaguely diverting action sequences, frantic chases, showcase locations and lots of boring exposition.

This year’s Plot-Propelling Object isn’t a magic compass, or a medallion, or a deck of 1977 Spider-man Top Trumps but a map to the legendary Fountain of Youth.

The race is between Geoffrey Rush’s now peg-legged rogue Captain Barbossa (still the most entertaining aspect to the entire franchise), on a mercenary expedition for King George II (Richard Griffiths in an oily cameo); some identikit Spaniards, largely forgotten about until the end; and guest-starring Big Bad Guy Of The Week, Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach (Ian McShane), fearsome captain of the fire-spewing Queen Anne’s Revenge, practitioner of black magic and “the pirate all other pirates fear...”

Anyone expecting a potty-mouthed Deadwood-style cuss-fest from Lovejoy will obviously be disappointed, this being such a family-friendly collection of hypoallergenic PG-13 set-pieces.

But it’s still an underused, and curiously understated performance given the competition, McShane not having much to do apart from kidnap mermaids and occasionally execute a crewman to remind everyone how terrible he is.

Of course, there’s no shortage of the finest ham being served elsewhere but Depp’s shtick as mincing annoyance Sparrow is now getting very old indeed.

Chicago director Rob Marshall seems to have realised this – Sparrow is sidelined in a throwaway sub-plot involving Blackbeard’s daughter, old flame Angelica (Penélope Cruz – fiery, Spanish, etc) which doesn't really go anywhere and only makes sense when Captain Jack is chucked into the action.

There are shiny pieces of eight hidden among the filler. A languid sequence involving mermaids that turns into a nasty Jaws homage is effective, and the fight scenes are as finely choreographed, if sterile, as ever. There's also a pell-mell opening chase that shows off its impressive period London setting.

Mawkish though it may be, the only human touch – a cheesy romance between a captured mermaid and a hunky preacher – just illuminates the lack of depth elsewhere.

Inevitably, all the plot threads are left for Part Five to pick up, come 2015, albeit with hardly anyone to root for and rarely any real sense of threat or conflict.

Not as incomprehensible, or interminable as At World’s End, but no amount of flash and filigree can conceal a disappointingly soulless, directionless adventure-by-numbers. All swash, little buckle: welcome back to the theme park ride that NEVER ENDS...

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