(In theaters, May 2011) Expectations ran high for this spin-off to the swashbuckling action/adventure trilogy of 2003-2007, but few expected this follow-up to be this… dull. Despite sporting the same screenwriting team than the first films, this fourth entry feels flat, unremarkable and even boring at times. The scale of everything has been scaled back (there are noticeably fewer special effects set-pieces, and not a single sea battle), while the sense of fun that seemed so contagious in the first two-third of the series seems lessened as well. The first few scenes show how off-track the film feels, with broad comedy that fails to amuse, familiar hum-drum action beats and incoherent plotting. Those who couldn’t get enough of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow will reconsider as the series tries to promote him to protagonist status, putting far too much dramatic demands on a trickster/comic foil character. While neither Depp nor Penelope Cruz as the feisty Angelica do badly, they’re not very well served by a script that feels noticeably uneven, even sloppy to the point of confusing the audience. The film even feels cheap at times, its climax taking place on an obvious soundstage, three groups clashing without much of a sense of involvement. There are a number of scenes that work well (the palm tree escape shows flashes of the madcap action sequences that made the first two films of the series so memorable), but they never sustain any kind of narrative energy. (A sequence set aboard a perilously-perched derelict Spanish galleon ends up noticeably short, to the point of cheating viewers.) In fact, the surprise about this film is how much intriguing material it squanders without care. You’d think that it would take work to mess up something involving mermaids, Blackbeard, the Fountain of Life, bottled ships, Keith Richards, Gemma Ward and Judi Dench in a split-second cameo… and yet the film unspools without raising too much excitement. Even the film’s link to Tim Powers’ fantasy novel On Stranger Tides is slight: the film is “suggested by” the novel, but it seems more like a case of retroactive acknowledgement of the first film’s debt than any correspondence to the written work. This way, at least, Powers gets plausible deniability when people will ask him about the mess that is the film itself.