[note: originally written/posted back around 2002 on epinions.com, but re-embalmed here for posterity.]
After the way my boys responded to Pirates of the Caribbean earlier this week at the local super-mega-omni-hyperplex, I figured that maybe it was a good time to take a break from our standard "Mom's-working-so-it's-bad-sci-fi-rental-night" Friday tradition and look instead for something in a more swashbuckling vein. The local vid-rental shack was stocked to the rafters with obscene dozens of copies of hideously uninteresting new releases, yet I could not find a single decent pirate movie on DVD. And then suddenly I had the urge to look for a specific title that I knew-- I just knew-- would be there in dusty ignored VHS format. So I wandered over to the sad "tape" side of the store, looked in the "Action" titles and found just what I was looking for: Nate & Hayes, one of the strangest and most forgotten movies from the 80s, a decade known for some odd flicks.
How weird is it? Weird enough that when I slapped the tape down at the register to check it out, the normally jaded counter-weasel glanced at it, did a double take, gazed at the cover art for a good ten seconds, then flipped it over and started reading the back of the box for details.
"Is there a problem?" I finally asked, after I'd been standing there watching him read for fifteen seconds.
"Where did you get this?" He seemed stunned.
"Right back there in the action titles. It's an old movie-- made something like twenty years ago."
"I see that, but I've worked here for a year and a half. I thought I'd seen almost every movie in this store, but I've never even heard of this one!"
"Yeah, it's kinda forgotten. It's weird that way."
Nate & Hayes is weird in a lot of ways.
It's weird because it's a classic traditional pirate movie, yet there's never a parrot nor a "skull and crossbones" nor any gold nor anyone with an eye patch nor very many of the classic pirate elements and cliches.
It's weird because it was written by John Hughes. Yes, that John Hughes-- the Home Alone and Breakfast Club and Weird Science guy, the master of the 80s teen comedy. In fact, right after this flick Hughes went on to write Sixteen Candles, one of the crowning achievements of Western culture from the period circa 1983-1987.
It's weird because it stars Michael O'Keefe, best known-- hell, exclusively known-- for his epic turn as "Danny Noonan" in Caddyshack.
But certainly weirdest-- and most wonderful-- of all is the fact that the main character in the movie, pirate "Captain 'Bully' Hayes," is played by one Tommie Lee Jones.
First released theatrically in 1983, Nate & Hayes was cursed by one of the worst titles in modern history, no doubt explaining why it was noticed and remembered by approximately 17 people worldwide. I have yet to meet anyone else who instantly remembers this movie when I mention it. When I start to describe the movie, the most common reaction is similar to that of the video clerk-- "You're making this up, right? There's no way I'd NOT remember Tommie Lee Jones in a pirate movie!". I myself recall discovering on cable TV a year or so after its theatrical release, and I can clearly remember thinking aloud "Jones is a strange choice for a pirate."
Why strange? Because Tommie Lee plays it just as you might imagine. It's almost as loopily surreal as the skit on Saturday Night Live in which Kevin Spacey spoofs missing screentests for Star Wars and shows us Christopher Walken as Han Solo, and Walter Matthau as Obi Wan. In much the same way here, we see a well-known-- almost self-parodying-- screen presence playing a role where he seems almost comically cast against type. Yeah, Jones dresses the part, wearing white pants tucked into tall pirate boots, and yeah he has a poofy pirate shirt open to the navel in most scenes, and yeah he has slightly long ragged hair and a scruffy beard (giving the weird effect of making him look a lot like singer Travis Tritt in many scenes), but no matter if he's buckling swash in a cutlass battle against a German naval officer or swinging buccaneer-style from a rope to board a captured vessel or dodging native spears or taking aim down a big pirate-looking muzzle-load pistol drawn from the sash tied round his waist or waving to familiar folks as he strides confidently into a seedy seaport pirate tavern, he's always plain old Texas-born Tommie Lee, just grinnin' and gabbin' and droppin' his final "g's" like any good old boy from San Saba, Texas. He's in a pirate movie, but he's basically the same character as "Captain Call" in Lonesome Dove-- "a man of vision? Yeah, a HELL of a vision."
Simply put, the idea of Tommie Lee Jones as a pirate is totally weird and completely bass-ackwards, yet somehow, it works.
Told in flashback narrative form to a reporter as Hayes awaits a date with the gallows, Hayes reflects back upon how he was contracted to transport comically stiff young missionary Nathaniel (O'Keefe) and his fiancee Sophie (beautiful Jenny Seagrove), then is forced to hunt down former business partner Ben Pease who is now falsely using his name to spread terror throughout the South Pacific. When Pease raids the missionary camp where Nathaniel and Jenny are (literally) walking down the aisle, he leaves Nate for dead but kidnaps the virginal Jenny for use in a vague scheme to help the Kaiser's navy get anchorage rights from a cannibal chieftain (don't sweat it-- it's all over too quick to care). Nate and Hayes quickly join forces to track down their common nemesis, and a series of laughably convenient and easily-arranged confrontations leads to an overly long and not especially rousing premature conclusion on the deck of an exploding German ironclad, which then leads directly to a laughably easy escape for Hayes on the gallows (eerily reminiscent of a similar scene in the infinitely superior Pirates of the Caribbean, actually), and then everyone first gallops, then sails off into the sunset (literally) as the credits roll and the soundtrack rollicks.
The story is childishly thin, painfully predictable, and downright absurd throughout. The acting is generally only just competent at best, more often drifting into low grade camp. The action sequences and effects seem fairly lame, obviously staged and poorly rehearsed. The Trevor Jones soundtrack seems to have only two basic themes: a nervous tense "something is about to jump out and startle you" theme and then a rolling rollicking "oh isn't it romantic and fun to be a prate" theme, and both themes are alternated and played pretty much constantly throughout, at once both boring and distracting the viewer. Most of the scenery and sets are remarkably unremarkable, especially given the fact that the movie was filmed on location in Fiji and New Zealand. O'Keefe proves that his Caddyshack performance was no fluke (he's clumsily bad both there and here), Seagrove looks beautiful (as she did in the wonderful Local Hero film the year before) but doesn't really "do" anything onscreen aside from look good, and evil pirate "Ben Pease" casued me more than a few chuckles for seeming to be an absolute clone of Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Basically, it's not surprising that so few people seem to recall this movie as there's no truly compelling reason to remember from the 80s or to bother watching it now.
Except for the presence of Tommie Lee Jones, that is. Somehow, Jones manages to haul this under-inflated mildew-stained surplus-store rubber raft of a movie onto his back and then simply refuses to not let you enjoy it. Even while everything else on screen is fighting (clumsily) to put you to sleep or at least make you look for a magazine to read until the credits roll, Jones just keeps giggling and leering and cackling like... well, like a grown up kid having one helluva time playing pirates. He just has so much fun in this awful movie that you wind up forgiving almost every flaw and shortcoming.
So I have a hard time trying to figure out just how to "score" this movie. For everything other than Tommie, I'd give this movie maybe 1.5 stars-- it's not absolutely dreadful, but neither is it especially good. But for scene-stealing Tommie Lee, I give at least 4 stars, yielding my overall 3-star rating.
My boys? They laughed. They clapped. They cheered when Tommie Lee saved the day and they seemed anxious when he seemed in peril, and as the end titles rolled ("theme #2-- 'Rollicking Pirates'"), they both asked me "Daddy, did we rent this, or did we buy it?"
"We rented it. Why?"
"Cuz I wish we bought it. I liked it."
As Tommie Lee might say, "Seems good enough for me, darlin'."