Touchstone began as a way for Disney to release films aimed more at adults without compromising perhaps the most sterling reputation in all of children’s entertainment, at least before Pixar came along (and Pixar, of course, is part of Disney, and matured and developed in its nurturing shade). It was a way for Disney to release a movie with, say, something as horrifying as a brief glimpse of the nipple of a beautiful naked woman in a playful and innocent context, or a child saying “sh–,” without engendering a flood of angry mail from apoplectic parents vowing to defrost the cryogenically frozen corpse of Walt Disney and kick him hard in the testicles, should his minions ever traumatize their innocent urchins that way again.
But as a latchkey kid whose fondest memories are all pop-culture-based, I appreciated that Touchstone made movies for adults that weren’t really for adults at all. Oh sure, they may have contained “adult” elements like the aforementioned five second flash of nudity or some casual swearing, but really they were for kids, teenagers, and emotionally stunted adults.
Though Touchstone has released some great films through the years — like Rushmore and Who Framed Roger Rabbit — and films that have captured the public’s imagination in a fierce way — like Good Morning, Vietnam, Pretty Woman, Ernest Saves Christmas, and Turner & Hooch — the banner’s house style favored cheerful, family-friendly mediocrity. The films released by first Touchstone Films and then Touchstone Pictures ran towards brightly colored, high-concept, modestly budgeted comedies and light dramas with fizzy pop soundtracks and familiar if affordable stars like Martin Short.
In many ways, these movies were descendants of the live-action movies Disney cranked out for kids in the late 1960s and 1970s — pleasant distractions sometimes bumped up to classics through the generous, myopic lens of childhood nostalgia. I loved these bland, undistinguished time-wasters and basic cable slot-pluggers so much that I would go to the library and read the novelizations of movies I couldn’t rent, so the youthful me was able to experience the Mark Twain quasi-adaptation Unidentified Flying Oddball in multiple forms. In a related development, I was a friendless child who did not lose his virginity early.
Captain Ron‘s poster is a glorious train wreck of all the worst poster-making tropes of the past 30 years.
As a kid and teen, I didn’t enjoy Touchstone movies like the Marlon Wayans/Kadeem Hardison vehicle and supernatural basketball film The Sixth Man or the James Belushi/Charles Grodin mismatched buddy romp Taking Care Of Business despite their mediocrity. I enjoyed them precisely because of their sunny, moronic mediocrity. I appreciated that when the Touchstone logo came onscreen at the start of the movie, chances were good I would then be able to turn off many of the critical faculties of my brain and give myself over to a slick, silly bit of formula that wouldn’t tax me intellectually any more than a sitcom might.
It is this odd affection for the Touchstone aesthetic that led me in the direction of Captain Ron, although I was just as inspired by Captain Ron’s poster, which is, in its own unspeakably awful way, perfect. It’s a glorious train wreck of all the worst poster-making tropes of the past 30 years. First and foremost, it is an unintentional masterpiece of wonderfully unconvincing photoshop. Judging by the results, it’s as if the designers simply borrowed a family member’s vacation photo and crudely replaced everyone’s heads with those of the film’s stars. The logistics are all wrong. Nobody even seems to be looking in the same direction or inhabiting the same universe, let alone the same physical space. Then there’s the aqua blue and red color scheme and the poster-maker’s need to drive home that Captain Ron is, in fact, a comedy, and a goofy and lighthearted one at that — what screams “comedy” louder than a tight shot of people laughing hysterically for no discernible reason?
It epitomizes the sensibility behind so many terrible VHS covers: shove as many of the stars into a tiny space and deliver a sense of the plot and premise as artlessly and ham-handedly as possible. In this case, the poster lets us know that Kurt Russell and Martin Short are in a tropical-looking comedy where a bland family encounters a shaggy pirate-looking dude. It goes without saying that shenanigans ensue.
What the poster does not convey is that Captain Ron is essentially a watery knock-off of What About Bob?, which not so coincidentally was also a Touchstone release, and a very successful one. Both films center on uptight, control-obsessed family men (Richard Dreyfuss in What About Bob?, Martin Short as Chicago businessman Martin Harvey here) whose dull, orderly lives are turned upside down when they come into conflict with an eccentric kook their families embrace as replacement patriarchs.
In What About Bob? the kook in question is Bill Murray’s neurotic uber-patient. Here, it’s Kurt Russell as Captain Ron, perhaps the only white man in the world who can pull off a Rasta beanie/eye-patch/partial cornrows look. When Martin inherits a boat from a relative and needs to transport it from its current location to the Island of Saint Pomme de Terre, where it can be sold, he hires Captain Ron to help him with the task.
Captain Ron is an R-rated anti-hero in a PG-13 family comedy that keeps hinting at a darker, more adult movie hidden within.
Captain Ron is a man with a past. He is a man who has lived. He is a man with character who benefits tremendously from the iconic baggage that Russell brings to the role. The eye-patch he sports is a throwback to Russell’s signature character Snake Plissken in Escape From New York; the shipbound setting recalls Overboard, another light comic favorite that would have been unbearably creepy with someone less effortlessly charming than Russell in the lead. Even the naughty-Disney vibe can be traced back to Russell’s early days as a teen actor in brightly colored live-action Disney movies overseen by dear old Uncle Walt.
Russell turns Ron into a lovable rapscallion, a scalawag, a ne’er do well and a consummate kook. He calls Martin “Boss” in a simultaneously condescending and insulting way that implicitly conveys that men like Captain Ron have no bosses, just jerks willing to pay them for their time. Nothing seems to get under his skin, least of all his own immense incompetence as a sailor and small businessman.
He’s also an R-rated anti-hero in a PG-13 family comedy that keeps hinting at a darker, more adult movie hidden within, just as it regularly hints at a past for Captain Ron that is equal parts immoral and illegal. He drinks too much, he gambles, he steals other men’s vehicles and their wives. Hell, he seems pretty dead set on stealing Martin’s wife Katherine (Mary Kay Place).
Captain Ron epitomizes the strange tonal middle ground that Touchstone occupies. It almost feels like there were two conflicting visions of the film: one, a raunchy adult comedy about a proud degenerate who corrupts a white bread family; and the other, a proudly retro Disney comedy about the innocent misadventures of a wholesome clan and the raffish but good-hearted interloper who teaches them to lighten up, have fun, and embrace the adventure of existence.
The film is weirdly smutty and adult in oddly fascinating ways. Most notably, there is a jarringly incongruous bit of PG-13 nudity when the happy couple are having excruciatingly uncomfortable-looking stand-up shower sex (as people do in the movies, but not in real life) and the pervert of a cinematographer decides to film the action from above, so that in at least one of the shots Mary Kay Place’s nipples are clearly visible.
Comedically and thematically, there is very little purpose to this particular shot, but if you were a young teenager when Captain Ron came out, as I was, a burst of nudity, particularly in a PG-13 movie, was like an unexpected gift from the movie gods. This shot doesn’t necessarily make the movie any better. But when you’re trying to figure out what separates a forgettable, garden variety bit of silly, ephemeral fluff from a special, transcendent bit of silly, ephemeral fluff that hangs on tenaciously and makes an impression (which is a big part of what this column is about), something as seemingly minor and inconsequential as a glimpse of a wildly out of place naked nipple can make a big difference.
Pretty much through star power alone, Russell makes a fairly reprehensible character immensely likable and fun.
But the film is smutty in other ways as well. The defining feature of the teenaged daughter is that she’s boy-crazy, the kind of 16-year-old who has learned most of her life lessons in the back seats of cars with the wrong boys. At one point, Captain Ron is filming the jean-shorts-clad backsides of the wife and daughter of his boss (not cool, bro, not cool) with a primitive camcorder from a secret perch, which would be enough to turn audiences against the character if he were played by anyone less lovable than Russell. And if Ron were to spend his time lusting nakedly after a 16-year-old, he’d come across as much creepier, but the film makes it clear that, no, he’s instead lusting over his boss’ attractive middle-aged wife, to the point where he latin-dances with her to the mortification of her children, leers down her shirt, and generally does a terrible job of hiding his sexual longing for her.
Pretty much through star power alone, Russell makes a fairly reprehensible character immensely likable and fun. There’s a bit of a proto-Jack Sparrow quality to Captain Ron; The Pirates Of The Caribbean (a late-period Touchstone production, don’t you know?) even figure prominently in the narrative. He carries himself as if he has a big beer belly even though he’s thin and seems perpetually, agreeably sloshed.
He’s a bad influence everyone wishes they had in their lives at a formative stage, and in one of the film’s slyer visual gags, Martin’s bookish 11-year-old son Ben (Benjamin Salisbury) not only takes to Ron to the point where a bottle of beer can be seen in his hand in multiple scenes, but he actually looks more and more like Captain Ron as the film progresses.
The film’s arc calls for Captain Ron’s freewheeling ways to antagonize Martin to the point where he’s driven to physical violence against the man who has taken over his life and stolen his family. Short makes for an affable straight man but Captain Ron belongs to Russell, who swaggers through the film like a man who has won the game before it even began and is now just agreeably running out the clock.
Captain Ron taps into a common fantasy among both cinephiles and pop culture obsessives: that Kurt Russell will enter their lives and become a surrogate father figure. And while it’s regrettable that Captain Ron subscribes to the worldview that if white people from the United States ever venture South of the border, they’ll probably be kidnapped, menaced, or terrorized by people with skin darker than their own, Captain Ron is too breezy and enjoyably inconsequential to be offensive.
Kurt Russell is a true movie star. He’s not a chameleon or character actor who disappears into roles and becomes other people. No, he simply goes ahead and does his Kurt Russell thing, and that is almost invariably enough. It certainly is all that’s keeping this ramshackle but oddly lovable vehicle upright and sea-worthy.
Original Certification: Rotten
Tomatometer: 24 percent
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin