The Lone Ranger (2013) / Western-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense violence and some suggestive material
Running time: 149 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Ruth Wilson, Bryant Prince, Helena Bonham Carter, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper, Mason Elston Cook, Stephen Root
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Review published July 4, 2013
"The Lone Ranger" is an early 20th Century icon that started as a long-running radio program originating in the 1930s, eventually making its way to a popular television show in the 1950s. Several attempts to resurrect the character have yielded little fruit over the years, with the last major cinematic attempt disappointing back in 1981 as The Legend of the Lone Ranger. Nevertheless, the character remains a cultural icon, and figures in prominently for those nostalgic for the pop culture of the 1930s-1950s.
Not one to let a potential tent-pole franchise go to waste, Disney Studios and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (On Stranger Tides, Prince of Persia) dust off the white cowboy hat in order to try to bring the iconic lawman into the modern era with The Lone Ranger, which is crafted by the creative team behind the first three Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, director Gore Verbinski (At World's End, Dead Man's Chest) , and writing team Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek, Small Soldiers), plus Justin Haythe (Snitch, The Clearing). While one would never confuse an old-fashioned Western with their other works, that doesn't stop this group from trying to stuff the horse opera into the formula they had created for the Pirates blockbusters, with a swashbuckling attitude that sees plenty of rope swinging and one-on-one duels, along with the requisite repartee. Some viewers might also be reminded of The Legend of Zorro (its story also written by Elliott and Rossio), though Verbinski's film goes far more over the top in the action department, and far less in terms of humorous panache.
The story is bookended by scenes in 1930s San Francisco, where a young boy (Cook, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), no doubt a fan of the "Lone Ranger" serials on radio and in print, visits a carnival sideshow display featuring, among other Old West items, "The Noble Savage", where what appears to be an older Native American wax statue is revealed to be an actual man performing a day job. The old man mistakenly, perhaps intentionally, sees the connection between the boy's "Lone Ranger" hat and mask and spins a yarn about the real Lone Ranger, taking the tale of an era when the Native, revealed to be cohort Tonto (Depp, Dark Shadows), was a much younger man, and one of the last of the proud Comanche tribe.
It's 1860s Texas (somehow, a locale that looks just like Monument Valley resided there then?), where we find an idealistic young lawyer named John Reid (Hammer, Mirror Mirror) coming to his old home town of Colby by train to meet his Texas Ranger brother, Dan (Dale, World War Z). Around the same time, a railroad baron, Latham Cole (WIlkinson, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), is there to drum up support for the massive railroad project that is coming through the small town, assuring the people that it will not draw in the criminal element. However, criminals do come in the form of Bruce Cavendish (Fichtner, Blades of Glory), an escaped murderous outlaw sprung from the train carrying him, requiring Dan and his band of Rangers, including John, to go out to bring him and his posse down. After Cavendish and his men ambush the Rangers, John is left for dead, with only a Comanche warrior named Tonto to aid him, along with a white horse that seems to know a bit more than your average horse (Tonto thinks that nature is out of balance). Together, they join forces on a quest to bring just-desserts to the men who've committed atrocities on their families and brethren for the sake of their own enrichment.
Somewhat overlong and overblown, but not without stretches of modest enjoyment, The Lone Ranger injects too many steroids to try to add some muscle into what should be a very simple, straightforward premise. As it stands here, it's a rambling, untidy adventure, pretty much unsuccessful as a true tale in the tradition of The Lone Ranger, but acceptable enough as a piece of summer popcorn fantasy to recommend to non-purists and the uninitiated. The iconic staples are all here: the white cowboy hat, the black mask, Rossini's "William Tell Overture", and catchphrases like, "Kemosabe" and "Hi-Yo Silver, Away!" (or is that Hi-Ho?) As played by Armie Hammer, the Lone Ranger is still painted as a goody-two-shoes, though one in which finds that his high ideals and a viciously Wild West cannot coexist easily. Tonto is not quite the loyal sidekick, drawn to be more of his own man, and one whose deadpan reactions and sarcastic remarks are a new addition by Depp to give a bit of comic nuance the longtime character, though one might slight Depp's performance as another of his many attempts to chew scenery in place of an honest portrayal.
One of the main knocks on The Lone Ranger comes through the imbalance created by the presence of Johnny Depp as Tonto. As Depp is the main box office draw, whose international fame far exceeds that of Lone Ranger portrayer Armie Hammer, the two characters have undergone a major shift in terms of their importance and screen time, with Depp not only headlining the flick, but Tonto is given more screen time and more importance to the story than ever before. In addition, as Tonto is more important, there are elements of Native American mysticism introduced to the story that brings other-worldly occurrences to the fore, especially in the actions of the all-white horse later dubbed "Silver", whom Tonto sees as a great spirit who resurrects John Reid from the dead to fulfill his destiny to bring justice back into the world. Tonto's look is also markedly more elaborate, inspired by the "I Am Crow" painting by Kirby Sattler, with a dead crow on his head that he's constantly "feeding", and a painted face.
These story introductions, I will admit, bothered me too, until I gave it some thought and came to the realization that, by framing the entire tale as if narrated by an old Tonto many years after the fact, that there is indeed a plausible explanation other than just Depp's star power. Tonto is revealed to be a man who is not quite right in the head according to his Comanche brethren, and given to flights of fancy. It would make sense that any tale he might spin about his early adventures would heighten his own role in them as a mentor and guide, as well as inject his own belief in mystical elements as he sees them unfold. This makes the initially superfluous nature of the bookended scenes quite vital to keep the Lone Ranger's fans on board, as we're not being told a traditional classic Lone Ranger tale so much as one as told by Tonto himself. It's a bit like Don Quixote, with its larger-than-life embellishments and notions of pure-hearted, chivalrous deeds.
Entertainment is there for viewers who have a sufficiently middling expectation of rip-roaring adventure; it's neither a nonstop thrill ride nor a colossal bore. The anti-corporate subtext does give the piece a topical heft, though Verbinski and company aren't really going for any grand political statements in this purely popcorn piece other than to state that people on the side of people are good and people on the side of greed at the expense of people are evil. It is also quite dark in spots, perhaps excessively, with one particularly gruesome scene involving cannibalism that feels far out of place in a Disney feature, and even less so a Lone Ranger adventure. (What's next? Necrophilia?)
Action fans may enjoy the prolonged set pieces, mostly set inside and on top of fast-moving trains, though at 2.5 hours in length, there is a similar tedium factor to them that also marred the Pirates flicks, especially as the lack of emotional connection to the sketchy characters makes these scenes ring hollow underneath the impressive CGI elements. If the scope had been trimmed to reduce characters that, while colorful, are not needed for the overall story (Helena Bonham Carter's Red, a brothel madam with a fake leg made of ivory, serves no real purpose except to sell toys perhaps), perhaps there would be enough time for richer characterizations, but Verbinski's too anxious to cut to the chase and we never get a single real conversation.
Despite the high amount of overhead, I'm going to give The Lone Ranger a passing grade, though by the slimmest of margins, for some quirky, interesting story angles, bits of humor, solid character acting, and a few rip-roaring moments of action, but my semi-familiarity with the iconic character does give be a bit of pause by wishing it could have remained refreshingly old-fashioned and lighthearted instead of yet another of 2013's dark and brooding summer blockbusters.
Hopefully, if this garners a sequel, we will see more of the sure-footed Lone Ranger that many fans know and love (in this world of outlandishly colorful characters, the milquetoast do-gooder the film is named for barely registers), rather than the "shakiest gun in the West" one that needs Tonto or Silver to save his bacon every 15 minutes. And the film's post-climax scenes are just dead in the water, especially a re-introduction of carnivorous rabbits that would be at home nowhere outside of a Monty Python movie.
If the creative minds can get their heads out from making another series to emulate Pirates and become more of its own thing, perhaps the off-kilter tone and excessive heaviness of future entries will match the fun of the old Western genres that lovers of The Lone Ranger have come to expect.
©2013 Vince Leo