We could begin by discussing what seems to be the elephant in the room—namely the controversial casting of Johnny Depp as (already controversial) Native American icon Tonto in Disney’s big-budget remake of The Lone Ranger. Is it appropriate? Does the actor actually possess Native American blood? Does that make a difference? Should a more identifiably Native American actor have been found? Would any of them have taken the role? Would the film have gotten the green light without Depp? All valid questions which many people are no doubt debating. But at the end of the day, Depp’s casting is simply one glaring symptom of a deeply confused and conflicted motion picture.
The fact that Depp has absorbed all of the prerelease attention turns out to be something less than a fluke. The film itself might as well have been titled Johnny Depp in TONTO (Plus Some Other Guy We Can’t Quite Remember—He Might Be Wearing A Mask). Directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (all of whom were responsible for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), The Lone Ranger is a fitfully entertaining but mostly muddled action flick that seems faintly embarrassed by its subject matter.
Admittedly cowboy movies have been a hard sell at the box office for decades. Then again so were pirate movies—until Verbinski and crew brought Disney’s theme park ride to life. So there was some reason to hope that The Lone Ranger would follow a similar path. It does. Perhaps too closely. Overstuffed as they were, the Pirates films were able to get away with a lot because they were set firmly in the realm of fantasy. By moving 150 years or so forward in history and placing the story right in our backyard, The Lone Ranger establishes itself as a much more realistic film. But that only makes the rampant anachronisms and slapstick comedy seem more out of place. Oddly enough the film does flirt with some supernatural fantasy elements. But they lead absolutely nowhere and appear to be left over from a previous script draft (of which there were, undoubtedly, dozens).
We start off with Tonto at age 100, hanging out—for no apparent reason—at a circus sideshow in 1930s San Francisco. This allows Depp the opportunity to put on loads of makeup and do his best Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man imitation. Depp narrates the film’s story in flashback to a goggle-eyed, cowboy-loving kid, but the wraparound serves no discernible purpose. It merely adds to the film’s unforgivably bloated runtime (149 minutes).
What we get in the main, post-Civil War story is Depp as a wacky, mystic Indian named Tonto who obsessively feeds the stuffed bird stuck to his head and babbles all sorts of cryptic prophecies about nature, revenge, greed and “spiritwalkers.” Armie Hammer (The Social Network) is our alleged hero John Reid, a citified Texan who gave up his shot at becoming a Texas Ranger to go study law at a college back east. He runs into Tonto on a train that’s being hijacked by the evil Butch Cavendish gang. It’s an exciting opening, one that proves Verbinski has got the skills necessary to stage a breathlesssly elaborate action sequence. But things get bogged down in character and narrative quickly enough.
Over the last decade or so, Hollywood has fallen in love with the concept of the backstory—so much so that they’ve forgotten how to tell an actual story. The Lone Ranger is weighed down by pages and pages of backstory, necessitating dozens of flashbacks (within flashbacks, mind you)—all to give each and every character some Writers Guild of America-approved story arc to work through. In certain complex dramas, that’s fine. But this is The Lone Ranger. It’s pretty basic stuff. The Lone Ranger is the good guy. Accompanied by his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, he fights bad guys. Now make with the six-shooters and the horse chases.
Honestly the last 20 minutes of this film cover that story pretty well. The William Tell Overture kicks in. The Lone Ranger, trademark mask in place, rides his horse though the middle of a speeding train, guns blazing. Tonto hot-foots along the top of another train, trying to catch up with the bad guy and save the day. It’s pretty thrilling stuff. But it’s a loooong time coming.
Hammer does exactly what the script asks him to, and one day he’ll be a fine leading man. But he’s just not the main character here. That’s a problem for a film called The Lone Ranger. Depp’s performance, judged on its own merits, is ... slightly less indulgent than the stuff he’s been doing for Tim Burton lately. But he’s clearly the wacky comedic sidekick. And he gets 70 percent of the screen time and dialogue. The formula is off. Too many punchlines, not enough setup. To make matters worse, the Lone Ranger’s famous horse, Silver, has been turned into a wacky comedic sidekick as well: He drinks booze, he wears a hat, he climbs trees. All this epic silliness would be fine if the film were some sort of Blazing Saddles-style parody. But it’s not. Switching tones faster than a speeding bullet, The Lone Ranger shoehorns in some grisly horror (Butch Cavendish isn’t just an outlaw in a black hat, he’s a cannibal who cuts out and eats the hearts of his victims) and some upsetting historical drama (the massacre of Native Americans is detailed with some frequency). Add a subplot about turn-of-the-century railroad barons, a treasure hunt, a one-legged hooker played by Helena Bonham Carter and a half-baked love story involving the Lone Ranger’s dead brother’s widow and you’ve got enough distractions for three movies.
The Lone Ranger certainly throws all of its runaway $250-million-plus budget at the screen. CGI is everywhere. Sets are massive. Extras are plentiful. Real, 250-ton, 19th-century locomotives careen and crash across the screen. Just by looking at it, you’d be easily convinced this is a gigantic summer blockbuster. But pay the slightest attention to what’s actually happening, and you’ll realize the film is way too long, meandering and unsure of what it wants to be in the first place. As if to drive home the fact, there’s a shot at the end of the film in which the Lone Ranger finally hops into the saddle, rears his horse up on its hind legs and shouts, “Hi-yo, Silver. Away!” To which Johnny Depp’s Tonto quips, “Never do that again.” Man, it’s hard to love a movie that’s that embarrassed of its title character.
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