Ho Hum Silver
It’s been ten long years since Gore Verbinski, the comic impresario formally responsible for the joyful slapstick of Mousehunt, was selected, for reasons that only became clear once you saw the finished product, to helm a film version of an amusement park ride: Pirates of the Caribbean. On paper this was a property that would require buckles to be swashed; a command of screen action; a director who understood boys own adventure. But unbeknownst to genre aficionados, Disney had a different vision. It didn’t matter if the picture was overlong and badly paced, with not enough action by half and a cast of beige actors; black holes like Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom – this movie had Johnny Depp doing an impression of Keith Richards.
Sceptics said this wouldn’t be enough; that you can’t build an entire movie around a slight comic turn, but it soon became apparent that audiences loved the idea of Richards in a pirate costume because the film was a smash. Verbinski’s command of the material, or lack thereof, was forgotten, while Johnny Depp realised that gurning not acting, raising your eyebrow not acting, being slow to touch objects not acting and putting on a comic voice not acting was enough to win a best actor Academy Award nomination.
One decade, three punishing Pirate sequels and several awful Tim Burton collaborations later, Depp is reunited with Verbinski, again at Disney’s behest, for The Lone Ranger; a pop cultural exhumation so desperate that one feels there must be but a handful left buried. Only this, surely, could explain why a righteous but stultifyingly boring hero; a dullard on a nag; would look like a blockbuster proposition, and not only that, but worthy of a $250m budget. Did Disney believe that a half-remembered brand would be enough to build Avengers sized crowds? In an era where 75% of a film’s box office comes from oversees, did it worry Uncle Walt’s retinue that in Britain the Ranger’s only bit of cultural recognition comes from a namecheck in the theme tune to ‘80s Michael Elphick series, Boon? No – Disney weren’t concerned. This may been conceived as an international blockbuster; a film made for everyone and therefore no one, full of simple cartoon characters and broad humour; jokes so flat you could lay them as rails; but it’s a global product with a special ingredient – Johnny Depp’s decade old shtick.
To the layman this looks like a disastrous miscalculation – like driving a steam train packed with silver into a deep river, and for once the layman is right, it is. Verbinski may have thought that a two and a half hour slog, bookended by train crashes and laced with very little in between, would be saved by the Arnie Hammer/Depp double act; the earnest, one dimensional hero and his oddball Indian sidekick. Maybe he believed that Depp blacking up wouldn’t be a problem if they gave him white face paint or that the duo’s child-like, witless interplay would serve as a distraction from the tedium unfolding in the background. He probably reasoned that wild shifts in tone like the machine gun massacre of an Indian tribe followed by a horse wearing a cowboy hat would go unnoticed, that it was all part of the fun. It’s likely he theorised that end-loading the movie with a multi-million dollar, FX heavy runaway train climax, in which the only excitement is derived from Han Zimmer’s reprise of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, the musical equivalent of referencing a line from a better film to milk the association because the movie can’t induce that sensation on its own, would give the audience the impression they’d had a good time; that the previous two, incident free hours would be forgotten. He was wrong.
The Lone Ranger confirms what many an audience member has long suspected, that Verbinski needs an editor and Johnny Depp, new material. Blaming critics for the film’s implosion at the box office as the deluded Depp has done, shows a talent, perhaps the only talent that remains, for self-deception that will soon snuff out a once promising career. Those enduring his Tonto will welcome its end.
The failure of the film, both commercially and artistically, shouldn’t distract us from the trend it represents. We’re now living at a time when Hollywood threatens to come full circle, returning to the simple, universal entertainments of a century ago. Once audiences laughed at a man taking his foot off a hose and getting sprayed in the face. Today some hoot as Johnny Depp hits a man on the head with a rock. Such movies don’t rely on dialogue or cultural specificity to work; they’ll play everywhere, to keen intellects and none, but consider this: if the movies have no ambition, nothing to say and no desire to tell new stories, should they continue? Jerry Bruckheimer, I await your answer.