Sunday, July 14, 2013
Dual Review: Pirates of the Caribbean/The Lone Ranger (2003/2013)
A lot can happen in ten years…
Sometimes the best way to review a film properly is to compare it to another, similar movie which does everything it tries to do, only better. So the only way I can conceivably begin to delve into the latest Jerry Bruckheimer/Johnny Depp debacle The Lone Ranger is to compare it to the one that started the affair in the first place, exactly ten years ago: Pirates of the Caribbean. That movie shocked the world with how well it actually turned out, being that it was A.) a pirate movie, and B.) based on a theme park attraction. But successful it was, critically and financially, and earning Depp his first Oscar nomination to boot. So it is entirely fitting that the same team would want to do it all over again, and resuscitate another long-dormant genre with the iconic Lone Ranger property. But where Pirates was a breath of fresh air in the blockbuster season of 2003, The Lone Ranger brings to light all that’s wrong with Disney, Bruckheimer, Depp and Hollywood blockbusters in general today.
We’ll start with Depp himself, and the performance that changed his career. Captain Jack Sparrow is still a remarkable creation, even to this day - clearly the X-factor which pushed the original Pirates of the Caribbean from typical summer fare into something of a classic… And what also turned out to be the beginning of the end of “Johnny Depp, Serious Actor.” He hasn’t completely forsaken real, honest-to-God performances, but these days Depp seems to be more interested in making his characters as weird and as quirky as he possibly can, without really “acting;” the roots of which you can trace back entirely here to Cap’n Jack. But the difference with Jack Sparrow was the core simplicity to his motivation - all Jack wants the entire movie is his ship back. All his quirks, all the little tics Depp gives the character all serve the singular purpose of getting back the Black Pearl. He comes off as weird and lurid and untrustworthy, but in the end we realize he’s that way due to his constantly being one or two steps ahead of everyone else. He was funny, daring, strange, sexy and just competent enough to get out of whatever sticky situations he found himself in. Add in the wonderful touches like the bullet he’s saving for Barbossa and the myths surrounding his escape from the deserted island and you’ve got a memorable character in the mold of an Indiana Jones or a Han Solo, while still being wholly unique.
Contrast Depp’s original performance in 2003 to his take on Tonto ten years later, and you have a perfect example of how everything has gone wrong in the last decade. Depp’s Tonto in The Lone Ranger is awful - and not just because it contributes to the long line of white men playing other races. It was pretty clear from the first two Pirates sequels alone that the director, screenwriters, producer and star didn’t understand what made Jack Sparrow so likable in the first place (playing him more and more like a buffoon than the surprisingly competent rogue of the first film), and that ignorance to what makes a character work reaches it’s nadir in The Lone Ranger. Let’s take a look at how each movie introduces its respective Depp character: in Pirates, Jack Sparrow gets the classic swashbuckler introduction of riding in the sunset while standing on a ship’s mast, only to quickly be undercut by the fact that the ship is a little dinghy that’s sinking fast. We see him ride it out all the way to the dock, where the camera pulls back to reveal he’s sunken so far in he actually steps from the masthead straight onto the dock itself. A lesser movie would have had the score fade off into warbling horns or other such nonsense here, but instead the patented Hans Zimmer bombast plays on - he’s not just a legendary figure in his own mind, through his eccentricity and general weirdness he’s made himself a legend in real life.
In The Lone Ranger, we first meet Tonto at a circus in 1933. A young boy dressed as the masked hero pays his nickel and gains entry into the tent, where he sees a stuffed buffalo and the like. Then he sees what appears to be a wax figure of an Indian, which then moves and reveals itself to be the actual Tonto. The feeble old Tonto offers to trade a dead mouse for the boy’s popcorn, which he then proceeds to feed to the dead bird sitting on his head. Already the movie makes the first of its many mistakes - one of our leads is reduced to being essentially a caged animal, his feeble and deranged mind leaving him incapable of much else. Uncomfortable racial notions aside, this is troublesome from a story standpoint: we first see this character in the weakest, most buffoonish light possible; coloring our view of him throughout the rest of the film - which does nothing to make us change our mind about Tonto throughout its bloated length. You can see how the filmmakers’ wanted to emulate the same alchemical process that gave us Jack Sparrow: there’s an air of mystery surrounding Tonto and his past, the subverting of classic hero archetypes to give us a new kind of character… But it doesn’t work here; the surface details of Tonto have completely overtaken what little character work they get out of him. It all goes back to the filmmakers’ not really getting what made Jack Sparrow a successful creation in the first place: Sparrow gave off the impression of not being all there; Tonto literally isn’t all there. The weirdness of Jack Sparrow served the character - the weirdness of Tonto serves only what Johnny Depp and the filmmakers think the audience want out of the actor these days. The wonderfully simplistic motivation for Jack Sparrow’s actions carries him throughout the entirety of Pirates, while Tonto’s motivation is only made known to us (and the character himself) literally seconds before he achieves it - with screen-time instead devoted to Tonto feeding his dead bird and spouting nonsensical, mystic mumbo-jumbo that tells us a whole lot of nothing.
The portrayal of Tonto is The Lone Ranger’s most grievous sin, but hardly the only one. The titular Ranger himself comes off just as horrid. I feel bad for Armie Hammer, who really does try to give a performance here, but he’s undercut by the idiotic script and character at every turn. The film tries to keep the character true to his noble, heroic roots - the filmmakers want us to think Hammer’s John Reid is a stand-up guy, through and through. The only problem is his complete lack of competency - like Tonto, Reid’s a churlish buffoon. His actions are all the result of luck or indifference, setting up the idea of Tonto stepping in and being the real hero; the problem is Tonto’s every bit the fuck-up that Reid is. If one of the characters were constantly having to pick up the other’s slack, that would be fine - but they’re both goofballs who barely seem able to tie their shoes, let alone sabotage a train company. Having a true hero to carry us through the movie is key…
Which is why Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were so important to the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Both caught their fair share of flak for the roles at the time, but they were necessary to the film’s overall success. Bloom’s Will Turner is especially bland, but he comes off that way because his strict moral compass makes him appear stiff to the more fluid machinations of Jack. Will Turner is motivated for much of the movie by his love for Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, but aside from all that there is his genuine, innate sense of goodness - he doesn’t try to stop Jack Sparrow in the duel in his forge for any other reason than that it’s what he feels is the right thing to do, and continues for the rest of the movie much the same. His unrequited love for Elizabeth is nothing we haven’t seen before (and can certainly become grating as a result), but it’s a well-tested formula that works for a reason, and when done well provides the perfect motivation to quickly get the audience invested in the narrative. Hammer’s Reid has the motivation of getting revenge for his dead brother (another well-worn formula), but it winds up being lost in the muddle of the script - a perfunctory beat there and there alone to carry out the rudimentary motions of the plot.
Another problem with The Lone Ranger are its female characters, who seem thrown in as an afterthought. Reid’s brother leaves behind a son and widow, played by Ruth Wilson, who Reid has secretly had a thing for all along. It’s there merely so the film can have a love story, which it barely has the time to even pay lip service to. Even worse is the one-legged prostitute played by Helena Bonham-Carter, who’s in the movie I guess primarily so Gore Verbinski can have something quirky to cut away to every once in a while. The most remotely interesting thing about her is her ivory gun-leg, which - much like the character herself - the movie never manages to find an interesting use for.
In comparison, Elizabeth Swann is the true protagonist of Pirates - she’s the first character we meet, and her actions are the driving force of the plot. There’s a bit of a Disney Princess vibe to her character, and her rescue is the spark that ignites the story, but much like Princess Leia before her, Elizabeth is more than just a damsel in distress - and often far more capable than her male cohorts. Again she’s a figure cast out of tropes and clichés: e.g., forced into marriage for status rather than love, being interested in pirates and sword-fighting and all that other boy stuff but being held back because she’s a woman, etc. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a dozen times before, but it’s handled in the best possible way and immediately triggers our empathy for the character. Elizabeth’s strength as a female hero just makes the women characters in The Lone Ranger all the more disappointing, since we know Verbinski and company are capable of much better.
One criticism you could level at both films is the overabundance of characters, which results in two-and-a-half hour runtimes for each. But at least in Pirates even the most minor of characters has a role to play and helps to move the story along; in The Lone Ranger, they drag the already staid film down even further, making the central focus of the movie muddled and confusing. The lack of focus is most evident in The Lone Ranger’s villains, split between William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson (and Barry Pepper, I suppose, but you could cut his character from the film entirely and lose nothing). There’s a very complicated process which connects Tom Wilkinson’s railroad baron to William Fichtner’s band of outlaws, which involves silver mining operations and railroad scheming and impersonating Comanche war parties, but it all ultimately boils down to the two of them wanting to steal stuff; it’s almost as if the screenwriters kept piling on the complications in the hopes no one would notice how flimsy the villains’ motivations really are. The actors are both fine in the roles - especially Fichtner, who’s menacing in an appropriately cartoonish way - but the script cuts the feet out from under them at every turn. Which is hardly the case for Geoffrey Rush as Pirates’ Hector Barbossa, who not only gets to chew the scenery the way only a classically-trained British actor playing a villainous pirate could, but also gets a pretty killer motivation that makes him somewhat sympathetic in the process. Barbossa and his men are cursed by the Aztec gold to live forever, but that immortality comes with a price: the inability to taste food or wine or feel any of life’s pleasures. Certainly the death knell for lusty pirates, and having he and his crew on a mission to return the buried treasure is a wonderful touch that acts as a perfect motivation and a clever vehicle with which to deliver the story. It’s both a subversion and a celebration of classic tropes, something all involved parties seemed eager to repeat with The Lone Ranger, but fail miserably to do so.
Director Gore Verbinski is clearly a gifted filmmaker - melding a sort of Terry Gilliam sensibility with that of mainstream, blockbuster cinema - but in The Lone Ranger, nearly every choice he makes is 100% wrong-headed. Scenes play out for far too long, all attempts at humor fall flat with each successive gag, and, tonally, the film is a disaster. The first Pirates was certainly violent and a more than a little scary, but never veered too far away from being family-friendly - there was a wink and wicked sense of humor evident in even the darkest scenes, which helped give the movie an overall light-hearted tone. All of that is thrown out the window with The Lone Ranger, which features a scene where the main character is forced to witness his nemesis cut out and eat his dying brother’s heart. It’s an ugly movie that revels in the grit and the grime and tries to get that same darkly comedic tone of Pirates, but instead comes off as joyless and oppressive. In attempting to deconstruct and update an admittedly outdated character, The Lone Ranger at times is downright vitriolic towards its main hero, merely for his being decent and heroic. The scene at the end where Tonto mocks the Ranger for shouting his "Hi-yo, Silver!" catchphrase is especially mean-spirited, and further illustrates how the film misses the mark as both a parody and straight-ahead adventure film. Pirates of the Caribbean too engaged in subversiveness, but still retained respect for its heroes - ultimately embracing the old-fashioned romantic heroism that The Lone Ranger seems embarrassed by, and working better as an action-adventure film as a result.
In the end, both films live and die by their intrinsic relation to Johnny Depp - both succeeding and failing by subverting expectations and defying the conventional approach to genre heroes. The difference was one film got us to care about its characters, while the other one seems ashamed of them.