There’s less swash and more buckle in the treasure-free waters of the latest, and the least, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” subtitled “On Stranger Tides.” And it is indeed “strange,” but never in a good way. Perplexing is a more apt description of a movie so dark, dank and devoid of coherence that you’d swear it exists only to pillage gullible buckos of their bucks.

There’s less swash and more buckle in the treasure-free waters of the latest, and the least, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” subtitled “On Stranger Tides.” And it is indeed “strange,” but never in a good way. Perplexing is a more apt description of a movie so dark, dank and devoid of coherence that you’d swear it exists only to pillage gullible buckos of their bucks.


The Somali pirates show more mercy than this brutal band of buccaneers, who brazenly take audiences hostage for nearly 2½ torturous hours on a voyage to the depths of incompetence.


Nothing works, up to and including Johnny Depp, swishing his way to a reported $35 million plundering of Walt Disney’s gold-lined vaults.


Clearly, Depp, like his character Capt. Jack Sparrow, is in it for the money. How else would you explain such a rote, lifeless performance coming from such a great actor? Johnny, I thought you were better than that. I thought you had some integrity. Then you go and pull a De Niro on us by selling your soul for bigger and bigger paychecks in junk like “The Tourist” and your latest shipwreck about a prissy pirate sashaying the seven seas in search of the Fountain of Youth.


Yes, Capt. Jack fancies himself Ponce de LeYawn, looking to be the first sailor to locate the rejuvenating waters that, according to legend, have the power to subtract more years than Joan Rivers’ plastic surgeon. Whether or not he finds it isn’t as important as the lifelessness of the journey, which takes him from the England of King George II (Richard Griffiths of “Harry Potter” fame) to a colony of curvy and carnivorous mermaids to a climactic showdown involving the infamous Blackbeard (a shameful mustache-twirling exhibition by Ian McShane), the no-longer-dead Capt. Barbossa (a slumming Geoffrey Rush), a cleric (Sam Claflin) and the Spanish armada.


It’s as stupid and convoluted as it sounds, but at least we’re spared the sight of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, neither of whom, thankfully, were invited back for a fourth go-round in the creatively flagging franchise. They’ve been replaced by a less-than-stellar Penelope Cruz as the two-faced daughter of Blackbeard, the most fraudulently scary pirate the movies have ever seen.


The saucy Spaniard, per usual, struggles to master the skill of acting in English, worrying far more about her enunciations than her delivery. She also has zero chemistry opposite Depp, as they flail away at trying to sell us on a fire-and-ice romance brewing between their thinly drawn characters. Personally, I’d much rather that writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio had paired Depp with his surrogate dad, played wonderfully by Keith Richards in one measly, throwaway scene.


Not so coincidentally, their face-to-face in a dingy London watering hole is the lone highlight of a movie filled with bitter disappointments. Richards also gets to spit out the night’s best one-liner by making fun of his ragged-looking mug. As for Depp and Cruz, I can honestly say I don’t remember a moment between them, with the possible exception of their first meeting, when Cruz, disguised as Capt. Jack, dances a seductive, sword-wielding tango with her doppelganger. The rest is just wasted time.


Part of the blame falls upon Rob Marshall, the Oscar-nominated director of “Chicago,” who takes over the franchise’s helm from Gore Verbinski, who had the good sense to know that three “Pirates” was enough. His replacement only drives the franchise deeper into the muck, making poor use of both the film’s 3-D technology and talented cast. The only thing more inept is his handling of the film’s overripe action scenes, which rely far too heavily on special effects and his trademark quick edits, which are so fast and truncated that you’re never sure who is thrusting his sword into whom.


The film also looks like it was filmed entirely inside a cave, as Marshall shows his green side by greatly reducing the use of light bulbs on the set. This might help explain why he was unable to see just how terrible his movie was becoming.


Well, at least it’s guaranteed to make money, given how Depp fans are so willing to hand over their earnings to pirates, even the ones in suits and ties that hide behind a pair of mouse ears. It is indeed a “small” world after all.


Reach Al Alexander at aalexander@ledger.com.