(CNN) -- Johnny Depp's mincing, preening, permanently pickled reprobate Captain Jack Sparrow is such a singular creation -- part fop, part ruffian -- that it's been easy to indulge his showboating.
But four years after "At World's End," the actor is guilty of going back to the well once too often, this time on a quest for the fountain of youth. He has no new tricks hidden up his sleeves, unless the thought of Jack brandishing his cutlass between your eyes sets your pulse racing.
Retrofitted in post-production, the 3-D is a problem: DP Dariusz Wolski has photographed the interiors so gloomily, it's practically impossible to make out anyone's features through the stereoscopic glasses. Slip them off during those scenes and you will appreciate how the movie should look. Or better yet, seek it out in 2-D and save yourself from paying a surcharge for an inferior product.
After extricating themselves from the knotty convolutions of the first three films, it's not surprising it has taken the filmmakers so long to embark on a new Caribbean cruise. What is surprising is that even fortified by ideas culled from Tim Powers' novel "On Stranger Tides," screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have come up with something that feels so tired.
The Fountain of Youth? Didn't Jack already come back from Davy Jones' Locker? Even he admits he has no interest in finding it.
Most audiences, I suspect, will not be heartbroken that the wan lovers played by Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have not signed on for this voyage. But the screenwriters have replaced them with identikit character types: a pious but pretty priest (handsome newcomer Sam Claflin) and Penelope Cruz's pirate's daughter, Angelica, whose motives remain ambiguous. Is she a buccaneer at heart?
Unlike Knightley's Elizabeth Swann, Angelica used to have a thing going with Jack, apparently. But the dynamic of their love-hate flirtation is otherwise the same, except that Cruz and Depp have zero chemistry.
Even the film's designated villain -- Ian McShane's voodoo Blackbeard (Angelica's father) -- feels like a retread of Bill Nighy's Davy Jones, albeit without the tentacles.
Luckily, Geoffrey Rush shows no signs of flagging as Jack's original nemesis, Barbossa, now kitted out with a wooden leg (though still short of a parrot). I liked the killer mermaids, attracted by the mariners' siren song. The notion that Blackbeard has bottled and corked the original Black Pearl is the kind of witty supernatural novelty item this series has consistency pulled out of its hat; likewise the surreal idea that water from the Fountain of Youth would flow upward.
For all that, the movie's best special effects are the authentically spectacular locations in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Director Rob Marshall ("Nine," "Chicago") attempts to bring some buckle to the series' swash, but when it comes to staging slapstick he's even more lumbering than Gore Verbinski was.
For all its huffing and puffing, its lugubrious heaving and ho-ing, "On Stranger Tides" is more ebb than flow. Jerry Bruckheimer's brand of fools' gold is losing its luster.