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The Lone Ranger

July 3, 2013
The Lone Ranger

Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp have collaborated on one of the smartest, most entertaining westerns ever. Unfortunately, that was Rango. Their latest effort, The Lone Ranger, is a bizarre, overgrown, tonally uneven mess. While it’s not as bad as it could have been, it’s still safely skippable.

It’s been suggested that The Lone Ranger is a case of Verbinski and Depp going back to the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean well, and while this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s not quite right either. Yes, Depp’s Tonto is a return to his long, repetitious series of oddball characters, and he plays a similar role to Captain Jack Sparrow as comic relief to a somewhat more serious main plot. But this is not the swashbuckling revel of the Pirates movies; even compared with the increasingly eccentric later entries, The Lone Ranger seeks a darker tone.

The original Ranger — for all its pointed avoidance of the more racially troubling plotlines — was part and parcel of the classic cowboys-and-indians narrative. The film, on the other hand, is intent on a more subversive reading on justice, and a heavy-handed — though accurate — insistence that We Did Bad Things in the old west. Which somber introspection is then undercut by Tonto’s behavior. Thankfully he’s not being portrayed as at all typical of the Comanche, but I still wouldn’t blame anyone for taking some offense.

Along with the tone, The Lone Ranger throws out most of the original backstory. John (Armie Hammer) Reid is recently returned from law school back east to Colby, Texas, where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) married John’s childhood sweetheart Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and maintains the law as a ranger. The incoming train also bears two prisoners: the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), and Tonto, a face-painted Comanche constantly “feeding” a stuffed crow on his head.

Cavendish mounts a daring escape, and a posse must go after him, including both Reids, straight into an ambush. All are killed, but a feral white horse shows up to bring John back from the other side. Tonto explains that he is now a “spirit-walker”, who cannot be killed in battle, and who will help Tonto’s efforts to hunt down Cavendish as a cannibalistic wendigo. Tonto would have preferred Dan as the better warrior, but he begrudgingly takes what he can get, bestowing John with the moniker kemosabe — “wrong brother”.

So we can see the general outlines of the classic Ranger, but they’re buried deep within this bizarre, overcomplicated, Pirates-infused adaptation. One moment we’re contemplating the ways European industry, military, and government double-crossed the native population, and the next moment Tonto is “trading” bones and feathers for whatever he can find on yet another dead body. It’s only after two hours have already elapsed that the William Tell Overture plays and we get the sort of rip-roaring action sequence we know Verbinski can deliver.

Depp is in pretty stale territory here; Tonto serves the same purpose as Jack Sparrow, but not as entertainingly. Sparrow, though, was a clear foil for the much more straightforward action-adventure playing out between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. But Tonto’s attempts at comic relief are not so clearly opposed to a dramatic main story; John Reid is a bit of a high-status buffoon making good, which role Hammer is admittedly handy with. The upshot is that we’ve got straight man who’s also a bit of a schlemiel, and then there’s nowhere to firmly ground the more serious material that the script clearly wants to exploit.

Then add in the wasted Wilson as a standard damsel-in-distress, Helena Bonham Carter as a scrimshaw-legged madam, hints at supernatural villainy that never quite materialize, and an extraneous framing device, and the whole thing starts to feel ungainly and not particularly well thought out. It’s as if the filmmakers stopped after the conceptual stage and figured that any execution following a memorable pitch would take care of itself. Pencils have erasers for a reason, and good writing employs both ends.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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