In the fourth installment of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” now in theaters, Captain Jack Sparrow looks up into the rigging of Blackbeard’s ship to see a Christian missionary tied to the mast.

“A churchly fellow,” another pirate explains, “always going on about ‘the Lord.'”

“A Bible thumper on this ship?” the film asks.

Indeed, “On Stranger Tides” adds a potentially fascinating wrinkle to its swashbuckling saga by weaving its primary story thread around the question of whether a daughter’s love and the faithful work of a “Bible thumper” can redeem the soul of the sea’s most notorious bad guy, Blackbeard the pirate (played masterfully by actor Ian McShane).

Unfortunately, the thread gets woefully frayed, and the new wrinkle can’t overcome the film’s other, glaring shortfalls.

Alas, me hearties, gone from this fourth film is the clever and witty dialogue of the first. Gone is the chemistry between the main characters. Gone is the delicate yet feisty actress Keira Knightley, replaced oh-so inadequately by the bland lustiness of Penelope Cruz. Gone is the humor, the creativity, the freshness.

To be honest, though the story in “Pirates 4” was more believable than the other outlandish sequels in the series, “On Stranger Tides” is so lacking it’s … boring.

Actor Matt Damon once said he wanted to stop making his Jason Bourne movies before the franchise ran out of fresh material, before yet another sequel was no more exciting than “Jason Bourne Finds His Keys.”

And while Johnny Depp gives it his best shot at bringing the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow back again, the script writers did all their best work in the preview trailer, leaving nothing for the rest of the movie. This film, frankly, feels far too much like “Captain Jack Sparrow Finds His Keys.”

Even Disney’s (patronizing?) attempt at bringing the Christian faith into the film fails to save it from the doldrums.

The set-up is actually very promising:

“My daughter fears for my soul,” Blackbeard tells the missionary, scoffing at the idea that a villain like him can be redeemed.

“Every soul can be saved,” the missionary answers.

Blackbeard’s response is earnest: “You disarm me with your faith.”

The film revisits the theme again and again, as a character states of Blackbeard, for example, “He cannot be saved.”

But the response comes quickly: “Who are you to set limits on redemption?”

Blackbeard and the missionary go back and forth through the film, with the pirate trying to mock and deride the Christian’s faith, while the “clergyman” answers his volleys with patient perseverance and truth.

And even at the film’s finale, a potentially amazing conversation takes place:

“I can save you,” the missionary is told, “you need only ask.”

“I seek only one thing,” he responds, “forgiveness.”

The exchange could have been an inspiring parallel to the gospel, could have been a powerful conclusion to the missionary character, could have been …

But it was not.

(Spoiler alert) By the film’s finale, the missionary surrenders to Blackbeard’s taunting, declaring, “I was wrong; not every soul can be saved,” to which the pirate correctly declares, “Behold, a man formerly of faith!”

Indeed, by the time the missionary’s conversation about salvation comes around, he speaks not to Christ in his plea for forgiveness … but to a mermaid.

The missionary says to the seductive siren he’s known for all of, oh, 45 minutes, “My mind is at peace because of you.”

In one of the most abrupt bait-and-switches I can recall in recent moviemaking, the missionary ditches his Christian doctrine for – literally – a piece of tail (sorry, bad mermaid pun).

For 90 percent of the film, though the movie was still tired and bland, “Pirates” had the making of a fascinating discussion on faith … only to suddenly sink with the destination port in sight. I have to wonder what happened to the script, wonder who came along mid-voyage to hijack the story and completely obliterate the integrity of the missionary’s character.

Did the ending get rewritten because it was considered too Christian?

Unfortunately, the godly themes of “Pirates 4” set sail with great promise, only to be plundered somewhere out at sea.

Content advisory:

  • “On Stranger Tides” contains a small handful of minor profanities and obscenities.
  • The movie, however, contains a heavy amount of innuendo and sexuality. Jack Sparrow and Blackbeard’s daughter speak frequently of their former fornication, making jokes and lewd comments often. There’s also a scene where they roll around atop one another in a prolonged conversation laced with lustful tones. Cleavage abounds, and the topless mermaids – though usually obscured – do occasionally flash some “side-boob” shots. A young woman is also seen entirely nude, though curled up in fetal position.
  • Violence consists, naturally, of many scenes of swordplay, mischief and mayhem, chases, escapes, gunshots and explosions. Jack Sparrow’s daring-do is displayed all over the screen, most of it unrealistic. One character’s supernatural death is somewhat gruesome, as are a number of skulls and skeletons on the set.
  • The film is filled with religious overtones – as described above – but also contains several references to voodoo, including the raising of the dead as zombies and the demonstrated, effective use of a voodoo doll. Curses, magic spells, a pagan ritual and the power of the Fountain of Youth also fill the film. Interestingly, when the Catholic Spaniards encounter the Fountain, they declare, “Only God can grant eternal life, not this pagan water. … Destroy this pagan temple. … You seek what only faith can provide.” It’s too bad the movie didn’t take it’s own advice.

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