The Films of Gore Verbinski: From ‘Mouse Hunt’ to ‘The Lone Ranger’
Berated by some as Hollywood’s new Michael Bay and ignored by others who fail to see his style rise above the studio material, Gore Verbinski rarely enters the conversation about the best directors working today. Still, he does have his following – me included – who believe he has more to offer than many give him credit for, and appreciate him for his Verbinski sheen and surprisingly varied body of work. Most well known for directing the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (ignoring Rob Marshall’s tacked on fourth entry), Verbinski teams up with Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp yet again for this weekend’s new release The Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, as you’ll see from the following ranking, it is easily his worst film in an otherwise impressive – if uneven – filmography.
9. The Lone Ranger (2013)
Though Disney clearly wants The Lone Ranger to be their next big franchise, I doubt this one clicks with audiences the way Jack Sparrow’s adventures at sea did. It’s a crushingly dull affair, giving you little to care about or invest in for its tedious two and a half hour runtime. It’s not terrible or offensive; it’s just uninteresting and extremely forgettable. However, there are a few sequences where Verbinski gets to shine, taking full advantage of the Western setting. The film is bookended with two impressively staged set pieces aboard speeding trains. The final chase, featuring two speeding trains reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s The General, is the only sequence where the movie captures a sense of pure fun. The Lone Ranger’s famous theme song is perfectly used to enhance the energy of the action and mayhem. It’s a great scene, and one of the most enjoyable action scenes of the year. Unfortunately, you have to sit through over two hours of lifelessness to get to it.
8. Mouse Hunt (1997)
Verbinski’s directorial debut, Mouse Hunt is a breezy family comedy loaded with slapstick hijinks as Nathan Lane and Lee Evans battle with an increasingly pesky mouse who has invaded their home. The movie is as kiddy as they come, but it’s hard to dislike a film that is so aware of what it is, and delivers to its audience exactly what they want. When watching the film, it’s clear that despite being aimed squarely at undemanding family audiences, Mouse Hunt has a skilled director behind the camera. Verbinski orchestrates the visual gags with enough skill and style that you just might find yourself charmed by this little piece of cheese.
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Dead Man’s Chest suffers the same misteps that many sequels find themselves stumbling into: it overemphasizes what worked in the first outing, while losing sight of the core appeal in an attempt to be bigger in scale and scope. Johnny Depp surprised everyone with his brilliantly unhinged portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Curse of the Black Pearl, even garnering an Oscar nomination. But in the sequel, Sparrow’s drunken antics are pushed so hard into the forefront of the action that the charm begins to wear off. The plot also becomes needlessly convoluted, as opposed to the more streamlined narrative of the first movie (channeling its theme park ride origins). Still, Verbinski has such a good grasp on this world of pirates and mysticism that the whole thing remains a pleasurable experience despite its flaws. Bill Nighy and the visual effects team created something wonderfully repulsive with the squid-faced Davy Jones, and the Kraken sequences are suitably epic and nasty.
6. The Mexican (2001)
Misunderstood at the time of its release, The Mexican was not the Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts romantic comedy critics and audiences were expecting. Instead, Verbinski started to experiment with the elements which would come to dominate the next decade of his career. The Mexican is concerned with folklore and legends, and the way such tall tales come to be. As Pitt’s Jerry, an incompetent smuggler, scours Mexico in search of a cursed antique pistol, his girlfriend Samantha (Roberts) goes on a parallel journey to come to terms with Jerry’s lack of commitment to their relationship, and decide whether or not their love is worth fighting for. Eventually, the stuff of legend and the real world begin to merge into one. It’s a curiously ambitious film, and it doesn’t all come together – much of the humor falls flat, and it does overstay its welcome. Yet there is enough originality, surprises, and charm to it (particularly in the scenes between Roberts and James Gandolfini as a surprisingly sweet hitman) to make The Mexican a success, and the most unfortunately overlooked film in Verbinski’s repertoire.
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
At World’s End is just as bewilderingly complex as Dead Man’s Chest – perhaps even more so, with every character hiding a secret agenda, crossing and double crossing with such frequency it becomes almost impossible to understand everyone’s motivation in any given scene. I suppose it could be argued that that’s part of the fun. Still, At World’s End is an otherwise fantastic conclusion to Verbinski’s Pirate trilogy. Wisely removing Depp from the first act of the movie, his entrance becomes a crowd pleasing highlight, filled with surreal imagery like crab rocks and sand-surfing pirate ships as he navigates the labyrinth of Davy Jone’s locker. Verbinski impresses with many other striking images throughout the film, from the ship’s upside down emergence back into the mortal world to Beckett’s final decent down the stairs as his fleet crumbles around him. The whole thing is a bit ridiculous, but it’s so committed to its ideas about the end of the era of honorable thieves that the finale proves a satisfying one. It’s almost as if this final battle and resolution marks the transition of these characters into the realm of myth and legend. Until of course Captain Jack returned for On Stranger Tides, but that’s another story.
4. The Ring (2002)
A remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu, The Ring remains one of Hollywood’s best English-language remakes. The Ring is also an impressive horror film on its own terms, and worked its way into pop culture very quickly in the immediate aftermath of its release (especially if you consider being parodied in Scary Movie 3 to be the highest honor). Following Rachel (Naomi Watts) as she struggles to stay alive after watching a cursed video tape, The Ring uses genre-stapes like our natural fear of new technology and creepy young girls to scare audiences out of their wits. Verbinski captures a sense of dread early on with the cursed videotape itself, filled to the brim with disturbing imagery. From there, the twists are doled out slowly but steadily, keeping your interest and building the tension leading up to a truly memorable conclusion. Verbinski manipulates the viewer masterfully, jumping you when you least expect it and subverting expectations at every turn. The Ring is a movie that lives up to the expectations of its genre and even surpassing them, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
3. The Weather Man (2005)
Though it flew under the radar when it hit theaters and fizzled at the box office, The Weather Man is a much better movie than its premise would have you believe. Nic Cage hits just the right notes as the self-loathing TV personality David Spritz, who sinks deeper and deeper into depression as his life falls apart. His father is dying, and requests a “living funeral” so that he can say bye to everyone before he passes. His son deals with unwanted advances from his guidance counselor, and his daughter is picked on for being grossly overweight. On top of all that, he is constantly heckled in the street by viewers displeased with his inaccurate weather forecasts, who resort to throwing fast food items at him. This movie is dark, yet manages to navigate all this somber material with a dry wit. It’s startling how funny the movie can be, and Verbinski walks this difficult tonal tightrope perfectly. Even when the movie gets into genuinely disturbing territory, as when David resorts to learning archery to deal with his frustrations in life and begins walking around the city with his new weapon, Verbinski never lets the material get away from him. The Weather Man works as a dark comedy, a family drama, and a character study. This is perhaps Gore Verbinski’s bravest movie, so it’s disappointing that it didn’t get the recognition that it deserved when it came out, but hopefully more people will discover it in time. Fans of Cage will also be in for a pleasant surprise here: his scenes with his father (played by Michael Caine) are equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.
2. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
People laughed and scoffed when it was first announced that Disney would be turning their theme park ride into a big-budgeted adventure movie. Yet to everyone’s surprise, The Curse of the Black Pearl ended up being a wildly entertaining ride, and far better than its humble origins would have you believe. This movie effectively launched Johnny Depp into superstardom, no longer hiding behind the veil of Tim Burton’s gothic visuals or Hunter S. Thompson impersonations. Pirates turned Depp into a genuine box office draw. And while Depp’s unforgettable turn as Captain Jack remains the movie’s highpoint, Verbinski gives us plenty more to enjoy here. The integration of pirate lore via impressive special effects, the explosive battles at sea, the well-choreographed sword play, and even the romance between Will and Elizabeth (which became a little grating in the sequels) all made The Curse of the Black Pearl into one of the most highly original and utterly enjoyable summer blockbusters to hit the big screen in recent memory.
1. Rango (2011)
Rango takes the basic plot of Chinatown and combines it with a spaghetti western aesthetic, throws in some madcap slapstick chase sequences reminiscent of Raising Arizona, a few Lynchian surrealist dream sequences, and tops it all off with a postmodern hero suffering from an identity crisis. It cobbles all this together with some gorgeous visuals and fantastic voice work, and creates not just one of the best animated movies to come out in the last decade (2nd perhaps only to Wall-E) but one of the best movies of the last decade period. Despite drawing from many sources and wearing its influences on its sleeve, Rango still feels shockingly fresh. Verbinski approached the animated material in a unique way: he gave all the actors costumes for their characters and had them perform their lines on a real set, as opposed to in a closed room with a only microphone. This unorthodox technique proved genius, as Johnny Depp shines as our titular hero, and Ray Winstone, Harry Dean Stanton, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant, and Ned Beatty all prove outstanding in their supporting roles. Rango truly is something special, a hilarious and moving genre hybrid with wit and energy to spare. It poses the question that Verbinski seems be wresting with throughout his entire career: does the legend make the man, or does the man make the legend? Much of the credit has to also go to screenwriter John Logan, who also wrote last year’s Skyfall. Still, it is Verbinski who pulls all the elements together: the flawless writing, the beautiful visuals, and the wonderful voice work. Rango is undoubtedly his best film, and after the disappointing blandness of The Lone Ranger, I hope Verbinski bounces back with a movie of this caliber in his next outing.
What do you think? Leave a comment.