Pirate ship buccaneer Captain Bully Hayes (Tommy Lee Jones) is landing on a South Seas island with a cargo of weapons he plans to sell to the tribe who lives there in exchange for a hoard of priceless gold. On arriving at the beach, he and his crew make their way inland, dodging the occasional snake in the jungle until they are confronted by the guards who escort them across a rope bridge to the village where the Queen is waiting. Taking care to remain respectful, Hayes demonstrates the rifles, but when Her Majesty gets her hands on one she goes guncrazy and starts shooting a few of her warriors, laughing all the while. Recognising he won't get his gold now, he takes off as his men are brought down around him - but even escaping this doesn't mean there isn't a nasty surprise coming.
From a period from around when Burt Lancaster stopped making pirate movies (having taken over from Errol Flynn in that respect) up until the point where Johnny Depp took up the mantle of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters, there was a particularly dry spell for the genre of swashbucklers set on the High Seas, and that was quite some time in cinematic terms. Every stage that a new pirate movie was judged by some studio big shots to be just the thing to be revitalised by their pet project, the audiences would beg to differ, and their pride and joy would play to almost empty theatres around the globe. So it was with Nate and Hayes, which posited Tommy Lee Jones in a beard as the real life scourge of the oceans Bully Hayes.
As far as the contemporary reports went, this was one mean bastard during the nineteenth century, but while Jones played him as a tough man of action, there were strong hints he was intending to come across as dashing and devil may care in the Flynn style, which given he was best known for his gruff demeanour on and off screen was curious casting. All power to him, he did almost manage to convince as a debonair rogue, yet there was a hard edge to the action that brought a nastiness to the supposed fun: seriously, for a hero Hayes didn't half murder a lot of people. Fair enough, we were never meant to believe he ever offed someone who didn't deserve it, but the sheer volume of corpses littered in his wake suggested a homicidal psychopath instead of the pirate hero.
That said, Jones just about got away with it for two reasons, both of them to do with the casting. First, the Nate part of the title was a would-be missionary, fiancé of the constantly being saved Jenny Seagrove, played by a desperately uncharismatic Michael O'Keefe, who may have been an acceptable part of Caddyshack but displayed shortcomings in a character who lightened up far too late in the day to be anything but a leaden weight on the plot. Second, the villain was Pease, played by Australian actor Max Phipps with such sleazy amorality that anyone would look like a saint compared to this guy as he rounded up slaves well after the trade had been made illegal and orchestrated massacres as if they were going out of fashion. Yet again, he was so unpleasant that he made the film difficult to enjoy as a brainless romp.
If indeed that was what Nate and Hayes was created as, though rumour had it every obvious expense the New Zealand production had thrown up on the screen (not including O'Keefe actually throwing up in his first shot) was all to exploit a tax loophole by local investors, which given how badly this did brought back memories of The Producers. Certainly the South Pacific scenery looked very attractive, and every so often director Ferdinand Fairfax found a nice shot such as that of Nate stranded on a tiny rock surrounded by a vast sea, so there was much to captivate as far as the visuals went. Another interesting aspect was John Hughes' name in the credits, right before he really arrived as the director of laser-guided teen movies in the eighties, here presumably taking care of a polish on the script, but not especially recognisable as one of his works, more anonymous than that. With a flashback structure proving redundant other than to anticipate Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, curiously, renaming this Savage Islands didn't help its prospects either. Music by Trevor Jones.