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'POTC: On Stranger Tides' (PG-13)

Practically everyone in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is going through the motions — though Ian McShane as the fearsome pirate Blackbeard and Geoffrey Rush as the treacherous Barbossa at least put some oomph into their performances – but even the most forgiving moviegoer will recognize this movie as the blatant cash-grab that it is. Even Johnny Depp — once an actor who gravitated towards challenging, risky roles but who has been turned by fat paychecks into a shameless sellout — gives a lazy, uninspired turn as Capt. Jack Sparrow. In some scenes, he reads his lines straight, without any of the character’s signature weird cadences, as if he simply couldn’t be bothered. He has never seemed more remote or distant — or bored, really. Not even in The Tourist.

Jettisoning all of the incomprehensible plot of the first three films (including Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, who are not missed in the slightest), On Stranger Tides doesn’t really live up to its title. On Tamer Tides might have been more appropriate. All the sea monsters and living skeletons and the ship-eating Kraken are gone. The closest to that sort of stuff the movie comes to is Blackbeard’s crew, which is made up of zombies (not the flesh-eating kind), although director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) treats them as an afterthought. There is also a good, subversive sequence— the film’s best — involving beautiful, bewitching mermaids who seduce men before turning into carnivorous monsters and eating their prey alive. But the rest of On Stranger Tides lacks the fantasy and wonder of the previous pictures, as if screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio simply ran out of ideas.

At least the movie is actually comprehensible, something that could not be said of the previous two installments. Too bad the story they came up with is so mundane. The introduction of Penelope Cruz as Angelica, Blackbeard’s daughter, who has an on-again, off-again flirtatious relationship with Sparrow, feels schematic and unconvincing, and her character is so ill-defined that there’s no romantic tension between the pair. Only when Sparrow rebuffs her advances, in a funny bit that plays up to the series’ running subtle hints that Sparrow may be gay, does the couple strike any sparks. Cruz is obviously enjoying the opportunity to don pirate gear and cross swords with the boys. You can tell she had fun making the movie. But she’s just another of the film’s beautiful props.

On Stranger Tides is filled with huge action set pieces — there’s one every 15 minutes or so — but Marshall doesn’t know how to make them truly exciting: They’re all choreography without being rousing. The best thing in the movie is Blackbeard’s ship, with its blood-stained sails and fire-breathing cannons. The vessel is a thing of demented beauty – the ship is actually alive – and is a joy to behold. But you know your movie is in trouble when the best thing in it is a boat. The plot, which is yet another prolonged search for the fabled Fountain of Youth, is hackneyed and tired – about as original as an episode of Jonny Quest.

On Stranger Tides is stolen outright by a subplot involving a preacher (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) with whom he falls in love. I kept wishing the film had devoted more screen time to them. The rest of On Stranger Tides is lumbering and exhausting and almost insulting in its lack of ingenuity. When Sparrow frees himself from a bind by shimmying up a palm tree and dropping coconuts on his oppressors, the scene is supposed to be funny, but it comes across as ridiculous. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Depp confessed to director Gore Verbinski during the filming of the two previous sequels that he didn’t understand the plot. “Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it,” Verbinski replied. And they made a fortune. That’s the kind of crass enterprise the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is: A nonsensical contraption designed simply to take your money. Don’t give it up so easily.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Sam Claflin.

Director: Rob Marshall.

Screenwriters: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio.

Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer.

A Walt Disney Pictures studios release. Running time: 126 minutes. Violence, some scary images. Opens Friday May 20 at  area theaters