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Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ***

I stopped trying to make sense of the Pirate movies about two sequels ago, but the good news concerning this one is that those two drips played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley have been cast astern, leaving Captain Jack Sparrow firmly centre-stage.

Depending on who you believe, Johnny Depp was paid anything from $35m to $50m to reprise his most famous role, and thank God for that because as ever it's Captain Jack that makes this yarn a little more than simply bearable.

One had feared that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would be a sequel too far, but the plot makes a lot more sense than either of the past two films and, though it could do with being half an hour shorter, it's pretty entertaining overall.

As our story opens, Jack's first mate Gibbs has been apprehended and is dragged before a court in London. Accused of piracy, he risks a sentence of death, but at a vital moment Jack Sparrow appears disguised as a judge and the pair stage a daring breakout.

Jack then hears that a person posing as himself has been recruiting a crew for a voyage to the Tropics. The imposter turns out to be Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a Spanish beauty and an old flame of Jack's. She is planning a voyage to discover the location of the legendary Fountain of Youth, and persuades Jack to join her. But she tricks him, and he ends up being pressganged into service on board the pirate ship Queen Anne's Revenge.

The skipper is the legendary Blackbeard (Ian McShane): Angelica is his daughter, and it's he who's trying to prolong his nefarious life by finding the Fountain of Youth. But the Spanish navy is searching for it too, and so is Jack's old nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has joined the British navy but is still a pirate at heart.

Like practically everything these days, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is filmed in 3D, which adds an extra dimension to the film's fights and chase scenes but makes little difference to the overall experience. It's at its best when Jack Sparrow is talking or mugging or even just walking, and gets a little duller whenever he disappears from the frame.

Captain Jack is entirely Depp's creation: his impish asexuality and semi-drunken swagger come from Depp's intuitions rather than any script, and it's amazing how watchable the shambling pirate remains.

As the oohing and aaring Captain Barbossa, Rush has always entered enjoyably into the spirit of things, and McShane's Blackbeard is a welcome addition to the crew. Cruz 's Angelina is Spanish above and beyond the call of duty, but adds a welcome touch of glamour to the proceedings, as does a handsome flock of mermaids.

There are some enjoyably hammy cameos from Judi Dench, Roger Allam and Richard Griffiths, and also from Keith Richards, who plays Jack's dad and is of course the spirit and essence of the Sparrow role.

Director Rob Marshall handles things competently overall, but his pacing is a little eccentric and the film meanders through its second half before racing to tie up all its loose ends. On Stranger Tides' story could have been told in 100 minutes, but instead takes two hours and 17 to disentangle itself. It's Depp who keeps it going, and fans of the Pirates series will be more than entertained.

They may have to face the fact, however, that this might be Depp's last outing as the loveable sea dog. I find it hard to imagine that he'll agree to appear in a fifth film, and the idea of anyone else playing Jack is unthinkable.

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