THE LONE RANGER
Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter
Genre: Action, Adventure
Run Time: 149 mins
Opens: 4 July 2013
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Long before Chuck Norris swaggered across the small screen as Texas Ranger Sgt. Cordell Walker, another had paved the dusty path and worn that silver badge. The Lone Ranger first appeared in radio dramas 80 years ago and has endured as a pop culture icon, astride his noble steed Silver and with his trusty friend and partner Tonto ever by his side. For the first time since 1981, the Lone Ranger rides onto the silver (heh) screen again.
This film is an origin story, portraying the circumstances under which the Lone Ranger and Tonto first met and ‘pardnered’ up. John Reid (Hammer), the new District Attorney of Colby, Texas, happens to be on a train which is also transporting two criminals: notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (Fichtner) and Native American spirit warrior Tonto (Depp). Cavendish’s crew of bandits break him out as John and Tonto have to save themselves from the train crash. John’s brother Dan (James Badge Dale) deputizes him as a Texas Ranger and as advised by Tonto, John dons a domino mask to become The Lone Ranger. The newly-formed pair go about tracking down Cavendish and his fellow crooks as they find themselves in the middle of an explosive dispute over the construction of a trans-continental railway.
The film has been plagued by well-publicized production troubles, including budget problems, rain and snowstorms, wildfires and the tragic drowning of a stuntman. When your western hits a reported budget of around $250 million, maybe something isn’t going right. Some have even predicted this as the “John Carter of 2013”, in reference to Disney’s notorious box office flop from last year.
The thing is, John Carter didn’t have a marquee name like Johnny Depp starring in it. Indeed, director Gore Verbinski and co. seem to be fully aware that Depp is the movie’s best asset. This is a Lone Ranger movie in which the actor playing Tonto gets top billing – it’s like if everyone was making a bigger deal of Robin than Batman. The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise cemented Depp’s position as a big box office draw and his Jack Sparrow quickly became this generation’s Han Solo. It appears that everyone involved in this film was fully aware of that appeal and tried to milk it for all it’s worth.
Depp has previously portrayed a Native American character in The Brave, which he also directed. Depp’s casting as Tonto has attracted controversy and yes, while stereotypes like “spirit animals” and shamanistic rituals are invoked, the film’s portrayal of the Comanche people is not derogatory. Depp clearly had a ball inhabiting the iconic role, imbuing the character with the eccentricity we’ve come to expect of the actor. For example, Tonto wears a dead bird as a headdress (apparently inspired by Kirby Sattler’s painting I Am Crow). Even if the film’s focus is clearly weighted towards the character who’s ostensibly a sidekick, Depp’s dedication to the part is still enjoyable to watch. It’s hard to imagine the guy’s already 50 years of age.
This means the film doesn’t actually have a lot of faith in its title character, portrayed by Armie Hammer. It’s a less embarrassing role than that of Prince Andrew in last year’s Mirror Mirror, but John Reid has his share of indignities to endure. These include but are not limited to being dragged through horse manure and then having said horse lick scorpions off his face later on. The filmmakers are clearly worried that the Lone Ranger might come off as a boring, generic hero, but Hammer makes him likeable enough and strikes up a decent odd couple chemistry with Depp. Perhaps Reid’s incompetence in this one can be attributed to his rookie status (though it’s more likely a result of Depp exercising his clout as executive producer).
William Fichtner is a gnarly, mangy, frightening presence as the outlaw Butch Cavendish, a ruthless fiend with a disturbing taste for human flesh – there’s just not very much to the character. Similarly, Helena Bonham Carter seems a perfect fit for the role of a gutsy brothel madam with a weaponized prosthetic leg – it’s just that the character is very underused. Tom Wilkinson is not bad as the railroad tycoon who won’t let anything get in the way of his business and Ruth Wilson is believable as frontierswoman Rebecca Reid. The standout supporting player is probably Silver the horse though, who is equal parts gallant and endearing.
Ever since the first Pirates flick became a runaway success, Disney has tried to recapture that with the action-adventure flicks Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the aforementioned John Carter, both times not with much success. The Lone Ranger possesses enough of that matinee serial spirit of excitement and adventure to be considered entertaining, featuring several fun action set pieces; the one on a train that kicks off the action reminiscent of the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There are some pretty cool stunts, but there’s also just as much conspicuous computer-generated imagery, including ropey digital caribou and rabbits.
However, at 149 minutes, the film certainly feels bloated at times. While there are several moments of levity, most provided by Depp, the film has a surprisingly high body count and for something that’s meant as a nostalgic throwback to old-timey oaters; it’s unnecessarily over-violent. This has been marketed as a family flick from Disney, so it’s a little jarring to see the villain carve out someone’s heart and bite into it. While the film is probably as historically dubious as the Pirates movies, it doesn’t quite have that authenticity or verisimilitude that those films did.
The Lone Ranger himself might be a gifted marksman, but his latest big screen outing is very much hit and miss. Johnny Depp fans will certainly lap up their idol’s portrayal of Tonto and it is the most worthwhile thing in the film. There’s relatively satisfying action and a good number of homages to the classic hallmarks associated with the character (including Rossini’s William Tell Overture as his theme tune) but it probably isn’t “fun for the whole family” as advertised.
SUMMARY: The Lone Ranger attempts to keep the character’s legacy alive and doesn’t do a particularly bad job at it, but this is clearly Johnny Depp’s show and that’s not necessarily an entirely good thing. It’s also weighed down by gratuitous violence and an overlong running time.
RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS
Originally written for F*** Magazine