Gore Verbinski’s reboot of the Depression era radio and baby boom television Western hero enters a world of tall tales and strange myths. The Lone Ranger delivers all the energy moviegoers have come to expect from a hectic Jerry Bruckheimer super-mega production, and only mild bouts of mindlessness cheapen this imaginative and bold film.
Extravagant, excessive, and intermittently exhausting, the vaguely revisionist, reinvigorated origin story stars the handsome but bland Armie Hammer of The Social Network as the titular masked hero, proving, as Orlando Bloom did in Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean that the main character can be the least compelling personality onscreen; in many ways, the director just took that hugely successful franchise and put it in a saddle.
An almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp—at least until he opens his mouth or makes the sort of flamboyant gesture any Captain Jack Sparrow fan knows and loves—gets top billing as Hollywood’s most iconic Injun. An outcast isolated from both his tribe and the white world, Tonto has his own reasons for riding alongside the masked avenger. He is no longer just a sidekick, but a mentor and the reason the movie works to the extent that it does. Heavily face-painted and sporting a dead-crow tiara he sometimes tries to feed—maybe someone should have told him that bird in Kirby Sattler’s paining “I Am Crow” was just flying in the background—Depp, like the film, mixes gravity and goofiness.
His decidedly distinctive Tonto spends a considerable amount of his time conning gullible white dudes into unfair trades, an amusing reversal of the past. Through Depp’s character and more poignant developments, the movie acknowledges a history of violence, greed, and exploitation and turns it on its head, lampooning every cowboy-and-Indian cliché. We pray for the Native Americans to defeat the Cavalry and ride to the rescue.
The Lone Ranger opens in 1933 when Tonto is a decrepit, half-forgotten relic of another era, a “Noble Savage” tucked away in a San Francisco sideshow tent. This prologue and the epilogue bookend a film that is long enough and too drawn-out as it is, but offer a heartbreaking, if grotesque, vision of what modernity and civilization have done to an entire people and a way of life—a point Verbinski keeps hammering, as if the script is not only addressing ten-year olds, but was actually written by them.
The story proper takes place some six decades earlier (in a fantastical 1869 Texas) and begins and ends with two stunning runaway train set pieces, the first of which introduces all the main players: snaggletoothed outlaw Butch Cavendish (Willian Fichtner), a leering sadist more dastardly and over-the-top than Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance; unscrupulous railroad tycoon Letham Cole (Tom Wilkinson); model Ranger Dan Reid (James Dale Badge); his dutiful but wistful wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson); and, of course, the Lone Ranger himself, John Reid, a straitlaced, idealistic Ivy-League-educated lawyer in a fancy suit who’s come home to look longingly towards his brother’s stoic pioneer wife and fulfill his destiny in a post-Civil War frontier.
Somewhat exposition heavy in the first half, the film finally takes flight after Reid understands lofty ideals of integrity and honor don’t fare well in this barely settled backcountry and sometimes you just have to use a gun to get your point across. The sole survivor of a vicious ambush, John dons the famous mask and hat and mounts his snow-white steer, “spirit horse” Silver (the butt of many sight gags), swearing to bring his fellow riders’ killer to justice.
Continuously trying to tweak formula and play with audience expectation, the complicated plot is filled with twists and turns, some less predictable and superfluous than others. Perhaps the problem is The Lone Ranger tries too hard—which is still better, in my book, than not trying at all. The movie is carried by an astute kinetic wit that blends the brooding, tragic seriousness of how the West was really won with large scale action, Road Runner visual shenanigans, broad slapstick (which affords Depp the opportunity to mimic the incredible physical feats of Buster Keaton as he did in Benny and Joon), and black comedy (“The United States Army,” the Ranger excitedly blurts out at some point; “finally someone who’ll listen to reason!”).
I would’ve loved to see more of Helena Bonham Carter’s sharp-tongued, crimson-haired brothel madam—with an ivory leg that conceals a double-barrel shotgun (!)—but that would’ve quickly veered the film completely off the rails, deep into Tim Burton territory, and not even the best Comanche tracker could have found the way back.
With an only half-mocking sense of grandeur, Verbinski captures spectacular images of wide open spaces, vast plains and majestic mountains beneath piled-up cloud banks, and the larger-than-life beauty of Monument Valley—although that’s not really in Texas. We’re already hooked by the time the “William Tell Overture” arrives at full throttle and in its full glory in the movie’s climax, a delirious showstopper involving two locomotives gone astray on parallel tracks. The impeccable production design is so intricate and interesting sometimes I wish the filmmaker didn’t have to keep blowing it up.
An ambitious work of pop-political craftsmanship, The Lone Ranger plants its tongue firmly in its cheek, poking affectionate fun not only at its source, but also Western cinema as a whole, whose conventions it acknowledges and then wriggles free of, along with the varied other genres it straddles. The movie is something of a contradiction in terms. It lets you revel in an old-fashioned horse- and gunplay adventure and also travels darker terrain of the revisionist western with echoes of The Searchers, Ride the High Country, and Unforgiven. It offers damn good fun while reminding you that the Manifest Destiny that justified civilization’s trampling across an entire continent is only a shiny veneer plastered over mass genocide. The problem is it hides its inventiveness behind the regular summer popcorn shtick, and rings discordant notes.
Busy, baffling, filled with bloodless violence, the film seems built from borrowed bits. The end result, for all its ambition, is uneven and somewhat incoherent, at once dignified and juvenile, too smart for its own good and stubbornly stupid. On that note, what’s with the cannibalistic bunny rabbits?