A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver! The Lone Ranger Away!
We all have heard about this guy. Despite never sitting down to listen to a single radio broadcast or television rerun from yesteryear, I too know of this lone Texas Ranger who became an outlaw after surviving an ambush, as well as his trusty sidekick, American Indian Tonto. Together they rode out of children’s radio sets and into the beating heart of nostalgia-filled Americana.
Hence, in an age of multiplex superheroes, it is no surprise that Hollywood has finally gotten around to one of the original masked marvels whose 1933 radio serial predates even DC’s dream team of the Man of Steel and Dark Knight. Yes, with this franchise-launcher Disney hopes to do for the Western what it did for the Pirates genre: Embrace it with arms wide enough to cost a quarter-billion dollars in special effects, CGI, explosions and one mugging Johnny Depp. Too bad nobody said all we needed was the masked man on a white horse.
Right from the start, The Lone Ranger lets audiences know that we are in Hollywood’s Old West. Set in Texas, it is remarkable how much the landscape totally resembles Arizona and Utah’s famed Monument Valley. But hey, if it’s good enough for John Ford, it’s good enough for Gore Verbinski.
Indeed, while taking liberally from the 1950s radio and television incarnations of the Lone Ranger, it appears Director Verbinski and screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio were also watching another Western icon of that era, The Searchers (1956). In this version, the Lone Ranger is still John Reid, the single surviving party of a Texas Ranger ambush that left his big brother, Dan (James Badge Dale) as coyote chow. But now, he is also a returning sibling whose nine-year absence has been hardest felt by Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), Dan’s wife and John’s childhood sweetheart. One even wonders if this were not a Disney movie if the siring of Rebecca’s son (Brynt Prince) would be called into question. Oh well. Like John Wayne in that ‘50s classic, John Reid comes to Monument Valley to find the love of his life married to a brother who is not long for this world. There is even a scene of seeming Native Americans attacking his sister-in-law’s homestead (though the outcome is far less dire in this story).
Yet ultimately, this film does not really belong to the titular ranger. Hammer is fine as the man who discovers justice in a mask, channeling a little Jimmy Stewart by way of Liberty Valance in his learned hero learning the true meaning of Western justice. However, he is really a second fiddle to the marquee name above the movie’s title: Johnny Depp. Much hay has been made of Depp’s casting as Tonto, the Native American half of this buddy comedy. And it is true that I frequently thought of Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus from Tropic Thunder throughout this movie. But honestly, Depp’s ethnicity does not hurt the picture. He surely plays the role as a noble savage, but then again that is how the part has always been written. Described as both Potawatomi and Apache in the original radio shows, Tonto is now Comanche here. Does it matter? Even his name is Spanish for “dummy.” Disney simply thought he would bring his trademark Jack Sparrow idiocy to this dummy.
But that’s the real problem for the movie. Disney expects they’re making Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and end up somewhere closer to the Wild Wild West 2. For all the publicity, Depp’s Tonto is rather subdued compared to his other blockbuster characters. There is still the trademark quirk associated with the actor, but he plays Tonto as understandably more stoic and self-composed than his smirking pirate. Not wanting to make the white man in Native American make-up to look (anymore) the fool, Tonto shows some crazy eccentricities about cats and horse spirits, but is primarily just as straight-laced as Hammer’s straight man. The Lone Ranger’s earnest likability and Tonto’s whacky brooding end up creating a dour heart to the movie instead of a loaded charm.
The filmmakers try to make up for this flaw by throwing a lot at the screen. With the same director, writers and producer of the first three Pirates movies, The Lone Ranger takes the familiar approach of “more is more.” Does a Western really need THREE train crashes in one film? How many times do our heroes have to escape a fiery explosion? Why is Helena Bonham Carter, with an ivory leg, in this movie? And what is with those CGI carnivorous bunnies? You read that right.
Clearly all involved hope to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was the first Pirates film. But whereas pirates are cheeky scoundrels whose throat cutting makes for a fun lark, the grimness of desaturated deserts lit on fire by the countless Native Americans gunned down by the U.S. Cavalry and a George Custer lookalike creates a numbing and awkward experience.
The rest of the narrative goes through the motions. Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), the man who killed John’s brother, kidnaps Rebecca and poses his posse as a Comanche tribe, raiding settlers to start a war. There is also a twist villain that any viewer will see coming (especially as his dastardly scheme is given away in the first trailer). But like that Custer-esque baddie played by Barrie Pepper, they are simply foils that Hammer and Depp must overcome while accepting their friendship and getting the sister/widow/love interest.
The final climax of the film genuinely makes for a rousing bit of camp adventure. With the “Lone Ranger Begins” formula out of the way, our heroes fight the villains on dueling trains for a sequence full of gee-whiz thrills and popcorn frills. Even the most jaded cynic will grin when the “William Tell Overture” starts up and the Lone Ranger rides his white stallion ON TOP of a speeding locomotive. It is quite the set piece. Too bad it comes TWO HOURS into the film’s nearly two and half hour running time. At least in that respect, being a good 30 minutes too long, this is very much like the Pirates movies. Especially with a contrived framing device that features Tonto pointlessly relaying the whole story to a Fred Savage stand-in circa 1933.
The Lone Ranger is a big, loud and noisy brawl in the saloon. It thinks it is being witty when it hits us over the head with a bar stool again and again, too drunk to realize that the piano player’s medley of “Hi-Yo, Silver!” would have been enough.
Den of Geek Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars