Johnny Depp characterising critics as all-powerful movie slayers is pure delusion

With newspapers laying off arts writers, the suggestion The Lone Ranger has been ruined by dishonest reviewers seems paradoxical. Perhaps there are other reasons behind the blockbuster's US flop?

Actors Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer complained publicly this week that a slew of poor (and, they allege, dishonest) reviews killed their new movie The Lone Ranger on its US release in July. As many commentators were quick to point out on Twitter, this is poppycock. “I blame the studio that couldn’t help the filmmakers locate the fun, less-convoluted 100-minute film that's struggling to get out,” said Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine and the Guardian’s box-office analyst. Jonathan Dean of the Sunday Times observed correctly: “It’s one of [Depp’s] poorer arguments. Critics hated the last THREE Pirates movies and they did so well they’re making another.”

I enjoyed parts of The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski (who made the first three Pirates of the Caribbean instalments), but it’s not a massively audience-friendly film. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, with an uncertain tone that veers wildly between slapstick, action-adventure and the outright macabre, it is less like a summer tentpole release than a vaudeville show or a student revue (albeit one on a budget so large that Disney had to step in to halt production and prune the costs). It is absolutely the filmmakers’ right to make the movie they wanted to make, and if the studio is willing to trust them on their judgements, however eccentric, then they are luckier than most in the current straitened climate.

But to then whinge at critics because that big-budget gamble didn’t pay off is somewhat undignified. Hammer even suggested that US critics only came after The Lone Ranger because their attempts to savage another beleaguered production—World War Z, which also suffered off-screen setbacks—were frustrated when that movie went on to become a moderate hit. “This is the deal with American critics: they’ve been gunning for our movie since it was shut down the first time,” the actor said. “That’s when most of the critics wrote their initial reviews… They tried to do the same thing with World War Z. It didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.”

This idea of critics as serial killers prowling the multiplexes with the smell of blood in their nostrils is simultaneously quaintly amusing and entirely whacko. It bears no relation to reality. A tiny release playing on a handful of screens can be buried by a bad review from an influential writer, or lifted out of obscurity for a few days by a positive one. But a blockbuster rarely dies unless there are extenuating circumstances: if the audience wasn’t put off by the pre-release whiff of perceived trouble on The Lone Ranger, perhaps the picture fell foul of the curse of the western, an especially difficult genre to market to modern audiences. So far the film has taken $175m on a $215m budget—bad news indeed. It’s too early to say what its total gross will be but from the outside it resembles the Will Smith flop Wild Wild West all over again (old TV show adaptation lacking any modern-day currency of familiarity; major box-office star; western theme). That took $222m on a $170m budget, another poor result.

Contrary to what Depp and his compadres believe, the critical fraternity is in a more vulnerable position than ever. In the past few years, the Village Voice disgraced itself by sacking some of the finest film writers in the US—including J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim—while here in the UK the latest cull was at the Independent on Sunday, which has exhibited the grossest philistinism in cutting loose its entire team of arts critics from September. I haven’t read the Village Voice since Hoberman was pushed, and I can’t think of a reason to buy a national newspaper like the IoS when it places such paltry value on brilliant and informed critical writing. But the situation is hardly helped by wealthy and powerful Hollywood titans suggesting that any bad reviews must be motivated by spite, collusion or conspiracy. The same critics, presumably, who gave rave reviews to earlier Verbinski comedies like the hugely inventive Mousehunt and Rango, or who praised Depp’s idiosyncratic turns in the Pirates movies. Or were those different, cuddlier critics?

The Lone Ranger is released on Friday.

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in The Lone Ranger.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war