Johnny Depp teams up with director Gore Verbinski once again, recruiting Armie Hammer to join their galloping voyage across the wild west in THE LONE RANGER, Disney’s quirky, sometimes quite surprising take on the venerable western icon hero of TV and radio fame. Their retelling of the Ranger’s story tinkers with historical accuracy to forge a larger film legend more suited for the competitive summer box office battles. Verbinski and Depp create a different type of on-screen alchemy than their pirate adventures but with similar star power charm evident throughout. Despite its flaws and a much-needed tightening of the story’s gun belt, expect nothing more than a full-gallop summertime fun film and THE LONE RANGER won’t disappoint you.
Given that the hit TV series starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels aired from 1949-1957, Disney’s new feature film has few franchise expectations to meet for 2013 audiences. Moviegoers will generally know the Ranger as a masked hero of the West, a sort of highly moralistic Batman on the frontier, but will anticipate little more from the character beyond his iconic image and theme song. Accordingly, Verbinski with screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have a much clearer field for storytelling than a typical reboot of more current hero tales, and they exploit this to their advantage by repurposing the man behind the mask to fit their lighter hearted, big action style while maintaining his pop culture persona.
Five minutes into THE LONE RANGER and you’ll certainly tell it’s made by the team that brought you PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN in both dramatic tone and visual grandeur. Verbinski does a good job embracing the romance and scenic wonders of the old west as he did with the high seas of piracy, though inevitably the western deserts come off drier and more sepia-tinted compared to the lush and lusty tropics of the Caribbean. Broader parallels between the two films are easily drawn, but don’t let the similarity style fool you: THE LONE RANGER is deep down its own cinematic animal as its genre roots demand. Such expectations work for and against Verbinski’s bellicose action tendencies, branding the film with a PG-13 rating for one particular incident that seems slightly out-of-place with the film’s lighter action-comedy tone.
Bookended by a carnival show scenario set in 1933 San Francisco, an ultra-aged Tonto (Depp under countless latex wrinkles and pupil-dulling lenses) is recognized by a young boy wearing the Lone Ranger starter costume kit, apparently inspired by his radio hero of the day. This diminutive vision of the masked legend inspires aged Tonto to recount the tale of his kimosabe partner and how they met — a less engaging version of the grandfather/grandson book reading from THE PRINCESS BRIDE but suitable to the retelling of an American legend. To borrow another William Goldman device: the story Tonto tells the boy easily fits the caveat “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true,” as does the film’s general retrofitting of 19th century American history when required. Cinematic points are made about the Transcontinental Railroad shaping America, along with the ruthless slaughter of Native American tribes inhabiting it, but these facts are bent more toward the film’s plot purpose than providing a dramatic foundation of reality for the Ranger’s legend.
What follows is Tonto’s recollected flashback tale of how and why John Reid (Hammer) came to be the Lone Ranger within their shared origin story as an unlikely team seeking justice in the West. Some viewers may find Tonto’s flashback/flashforward narration intrusive on the central story set in 1869 Texas, and surely this device isn’t scripted as smoothly as it might have been. But the scribes and director attempt to make it pay off to benefit Depp’s leading performance, elevating Tonto above his traditional role as the hero’s sidekick.
Similar to the PIRATES formula, Tonto and Reid initially clash with opposite goals in mind, rather like Jack Sparrow and Will Turner before them, but here their opposing personalities are literally bound together in a common fate from the opening scene. Depp and Hammer make a good if equally unlikely pair in the film, with Tonto being more of the straight man while Hammer’s bookish Texas ranger is the more comically misplaced at first. Reid’s high moral standards and practical ineptitude echo (in perhaps the smallest fraction) Jimmy Stewart’s character in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: a ridiculous spectacle from the East dropped into the rough and tumble West who must earn respect before he’s given any, even by his own brother. Hammer plays this out nicely, even if the script barely scratches his character’s potential in the first act.
What John Reid doesn’t know about life and injustice in the old west could fill the Harvard law library, but John’s heart is in the right place as he returns home to brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). John’s bumbling actions allow the train-bound criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to escape, earning Reid a quick deputation as ranger to track down their prisoner at-large. Even back in the 1860s, apparently Texas hated the interruption of a state execution, so John rides out with Dan’s posse to hunt down Cavendish and satisfy justice.
What follows is a galloping tour through some magnificent western America wilderness and a deadly canyon ambush of Dan’s ranger party, all wonderfully staged by Verbinski and shot by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Often the pair capture some truly iconic and majestic compositions of this vast desert wilderness, not on par with John Ford’s masterworks to be sure, but worthy of some spectacle-appreciating moments on their own. In this lopsided shoot out, Dan is murdered in rather gruesome fashion by Cavendish, a bloody end that is mostly implied but the context of it is clear enough that parents might think twice before buying a ticket for the littlest cowpokes. Even in his faltering consciousness after being shot, John’s view of his brother’s murder is enough to traumatize him and provide the character-shifting transformation from book-bound idealist to a relentless fighter for justice that the untamed west is unable (or unwilling) to provide.
Tonto’s peculiar brand of Comanche spirituality helps forge the man who will eventually become the Lone Ranger when Reid refuses to die even after Tonto attempts to bury him along with his brother’s posse. In a mildly clever twist on such buddy pairings, Tonto had hoped and prayed to the spirits to resurrect a different hero to seek their mutually denied justice, but Reid stubbornly usurps that role as assisted by a pure white ‘spirit horse’ that also refuses to comply with Tonto’s choice. Such mystical acts and perhaps desert-baked delusions allow Depp to shine as Tonto at his quirky best, not riffing directly from his Jack Sparrow repertoire at all, but clearly the same artist at work, imbuing his Comanche warrior with an enjoyable flair for deadpan dizziness that makes Tonto and Jack cinematic cousins to be sure.
Alas, there is a vast landscape of plot points and characters left to meet and explore once Reid and Tonto pair up on their righteous, rebellious mission. It is in this middle act that THE LONE RANGER lets go of the reins a little too often and allows the plot to wander too far off the trail. Railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) attempts to civilize the West and create a nation by building the Transcontinental Railway, insisting that with the trains will come justice and security for all those languishing in the dusty, deadly frontier.
Helena Bonham Carter makes periodic if perfunctory appearances as Red Harrington, a western madame propped up by an ivory leg prosthetic that supposedly motivates her character to help Reid in his pursuit of justice against Cavendish. Neither she nor her double-barreled underpinning ever successfully earn Red a satisfying role in the plot, despite her high-profile presence in the film’s trailers. Likewise, talented Barry Pepper is never quite allowed to shine from underneath his Cavalry uniform and Custer-esque wig and beard as Fuller, yet another plot servant audiences will care little about until his true function is revealed.
It is in this character-parched middle act where THE LONE RANGER drags its spurs in the sand too often, missing the plot-rounding personalities of the daft but enjoyable crew of the Black Pearl. Indeed only Fichtner really pays off as the villainous, carnivorous Cavendish who audiences won’t exactly love to hate as they did Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, but at least they’ll want to see the baddie get his comeuppance in the end.
THE LONE RANGER’s very premise is based on the idea of a man seeking justice per his own moral code when the wild and often corrupt West denies it in the name of greed and progress. Had the screenwriting trio kept the film’s middle act steaming ahead on that thematic track instead of derailing itself with sidebar detours — including a ridiculously wasteful, inexplicable appearance by piranha-like wild rabbits — this film would be a more tautly paced and entertaining adventure, better exploiting the edge of movie theater seats than it does in its overpadded 149 minutes.
Having wandered astray too often in its middle, Verbinski attempts to cram far too much action and plot resolution into its lengthy final act. Railroading antagonist Cole speaks to Rebecca’s son Danny in a late scene about the train’s ability to empower mankind’s mastery of time and space, but clearly director and writers did not perfect that power when hurtling into their rambling finale. Verbinski seems intent on achieving an epic scale in THE LONE RANGER’s debut chapter greater than he attempted until his third film into the PIRATES franchise. Ultimately this fails the intimacy of the Lone Ranger’s much more personal mythology: to battle injustice as much as one man (two counting Tonto) can actually accomplish as a hero, not as a superhero.
Herein lies the split personality of THE LONE RANGER: the film’s early appeal is that John Reid is not the typical superhero audiences have been steadily fed at box offices for several summers now. Hammer rightfully plays Reid as flawed, fallible and enjoyably naive at the right moments to gain audience sympathy for his plight, and justify his actions once he takes the law into his own hands from behind a badge. As much as Tonto rebels against his unlikely partner, he can’t help but join Reid on his rocky path to becoming what the Lone Ranger eventually means in the West. Yet Verbinski and the script broaden the epic scope of the film’s finale to such IMAX-boggling scale that the action becomes too much for Reid and Tonto to realistically overcome on their own. The eventual introduction and timing of Rossini-appropriated theme music, rather than lifting audiences out of their chairs, more likely pushes them back into their seats as viewers hang on for a dazzling but overwhelming wild ride finale.
It’s only fair to point out that THE LONE RANGER is not entirely a string bombastic explosions and train crashes, though its conclusion certainly exhausts the possibilities of both events. In quieter and less obvious character moments that may well escape most viewers’ attention, Depp subtly works many touches of the silent film master Buster Keaton into his portrayal of Tonto. Depp’s fondness for Keaton comes as little surprise after his skilled mimicry of Buster as seen in BENNY & JOON, but these touches are quite unexpected in the middle of this Jerry Bruckheimer-production action bonanza. Depp’s often deadpan expression, while caked in crackling face paint, is a direct nod to Keaton’s emotionless visage. One could even argue that his dead-crow hat is a quirky descendant of Keaton’s flat pork pie topper, albeit with Johnny’s unique flair for turning it into a pseudo-character of its own. Certainly Depp’s ladder-walking stunt to transition between two parallel racing trains is a daring homage to Keaton’s own teetering ladder gag from his 1922 short COPS, in which Keaton turned a long ladder into a see-saw atop a fence to avoid capture by police. Quite unlike Jack Sparrow’s zany animation of body gestures, there is a stillness to Depp’s Tonto that uncannily evokes Buster Keaton’s acting and action style: few will tap into such references, but credit Depp for his effort.
Indeed, Keaton would have also loved the film’s finale that puts the loco in locomotives, but the wizard of silent film action sequences already wrote the book on such train chasing, crashing and crushing epic stunts in 1926 with his feature masterpiece, THE GENERAL. Either directly or indirectly, the writers and Verbinski know how high Keaton set the bar for full-scale train film action, so their attempt to top it is as worthy of acknowledgement as is noting their failure to do so. Part of Keaton’s genius was clarifying action and stunts so that his audience thought they were ahead of Buster until he double-crossed them with a surprise twist. In contract, THE LONE RANGER audiences must concentrate on the furious action just to keep up with the movie’s climax, which makes such a Keaton-esque feats of action film brilliance impossible to achieve.
Ultimately THE LONE RANGER is too much of what might have been a good thing in returning for the masked hero to the big screen, as its promising character-driven start is eventually overwhelmed by a full-throttle juggernaut of huge action sequences. John Reid’s journey is set up entertainingly well by Hammer and Depp, yet the longer the Ranger rides, the more his personal quest for justice that we all want to see fulfilled becomes dulled amid a sandstorm of overblown frenzy. I liked many pieces of THE LONE RANGER, but I left the film wanting to like it a lot more than I did in the end. Had this Ranger been left a bit more alone with Tonto, his tin star would have shone brightly as intended.
FilmEdge gives THE LONE RANGER three stars for achieving fun summer film status but ultimately overdoing it. Saddle up and enjoy it on that basis.