This past week, the Hollywood actors Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, and their producer Jerry Bruckheimer, complained that poor (and, they alleged, dishonest) reviews killed their 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, lessconvoluted 100-minute film that’s struggling to get out,” said Charles Gant, the film editor of Heat magazine and box-office analyst for the Guardian.
Jonathan Dean of the Sunday Times observed: “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 instalments of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s not an 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 tent-pole 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 film-makers’ 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 then to whinge at critics because that big-budget gamble didn’t pay off is somewhat undignified. Hammer even suggested that US critics only went after The Lone Ranger because their attempts to savage another beleaguered production –World War Z – were frustrated when that movie went on to become a moderate hit.
This idea of critics as serial killers prowling the multiplexes is quaintly amusing, because 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 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.
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 paper like the IoS when it places such paltry value on informed critical writing. But the situation is hardly helped by 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 such as the inventive Mousehunt and Rango, or who praised Depp’s idiosyncratic turns in the Piratesmovies. Or were those different, cuddlier critics?