Hard as it may be to believe, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp's fourth collaboration, The Lone Ranger, arrives almost ten years to the day since their first team-up, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, docked in multiplexes. And, much like its predecessor, this rebooted take on the vintage masked cowboy -- who has been patrolling the 19th-century frontier on radio, television and film since the '30s -- is going into blockbuster season as a major-league underdog. Pirates, of course, overcame initial skepticism surrounding its theme park ride origins, Depp's then-uncertain box office appeal and the general poor track record of pirate movies (Cutthroat Island, anyone?) to become one of the past decade's most profitable ongoing franchises. And the duo's past success (coupled with a desire to secure more seafaring adventures with Captain Jack Sparrow) was undoubtedly the main reason Disney took a chance on The Lone Ranger, to the tune of almost $250 million. But if Black Pearl was a textbook example of cinematic alchemy -- where a myriad of unlikely elements somehow came together to form gold -- The Lone Ranger turns out to be less a precious metal than an especially sizeable cow patty.
Technically, this is Verbinski and Depp's second attempt at a frontier story, coming on the heels of their delightfully odd, Oscar-winning animated feature Rango from two years back. And all things being equal, they should've stuck with the cartoon, where they had free rein to spin a unique contemporary mythology out of classic Western tropes. And, in fact, that's the same advantage they had with Pirates of the Caribbean as well, since the source material didn't exactly have a set narrative or specific set of characters they had to integrate into the film. An established character like the Lone Ranger, on the other hand, comes with his own built-in backstory and, based on the finished product anyway, it's not one that Verbinski and his screenwriting team had much interest in. Although the film dutifully goes through the motions of recounting the way that an ordinary Texas Ranger named John Reid (played here by Armie Hammer) came to acquire the mask, hat and horse of the Lone Ranger -- short version: he was shot and left for dead by a posse headed up by snarling bad guy Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, sporting a scarred jaw that resembles a discarded Jonah Hex screen test), but revived by even-tempered Native American sidekick Tonto (Depp) -- there's little attempt to make the title character relatable or even interesting to contemporary audiences. The fact that Depp precedes Hammer in the credits isn't simply a case of which name carries the most star power: it's a tacit acknowledgement that the Lone Ranger is essentially a glorified bystander in his own movie.
I should note that the fault doesn't lie with Hammer, who possesses the looks and charisma of a vintage square-jawed hero from Hollywood's Golden Age and plays the role with the right amount of conviction, while also allowing himself to look silly when the occasion demands it. (He's a much better choice of straight man than Borlando Gloom's yawn-inducing Pirates character, Will Turner.) But that's also the primary problem with the movie: it regularly and repeatedly calls upon Hammer to play the Ranger as a buffoon. Initially introduced as a dorky lawyer who walked away from the family business as a Ranger, a line of work that his dead father and still-living (for now) brother (James Badge Dale) swore by, John returns to the Wild West with the intention of becoming the local D.A. and dispensing courtroom justice rather than frontier justice.
Given that history, it's understandable that he'd be uneasy in the saddle when he first tries his hand at vigilante life, although the movie also has no problem ignoring his rusty cowboy skills when it might inconvenience the staging of one of Verbinski's patented overstuffed set-pieces, like a brawl in a house of prostitution or the train-set shoot 'em ups that open and close the picture. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the primary reason that Depp and Verbinski were so eager to make a Lone Ranger picture was the opportunity to play with trains. More technical and narrative care is lavished on these two sequences than pretty much anything else in the movie.) Still, the extent to which Verbinski and the writers undercut their hero's... well, heroism through sarcastic asides, repeated demonstrations of poor judgment and accidental competency is fairly surprising; it's an approach that might have worked in a movie with a stronger satirical streak -- a comic deconstruction of the Lone Ranger and the myth of the Old West that's more in the vein of Blazing Saddles than a big-budget version of an old Western serial. Here though, it just seems like an easy way for the filmmakers to nudge the audience in the ribs, as if to say "Yeah, we know this guy is corny. Whaddya gonna do? He's the brand name."
With the ostensible hero a maroon and the plot -- which amounts to little more than the Ranger wandering around various Western backdrops for two-and-a-half hours capturing Cavendish only to have him escape again and again and eventually discovering that the real villain behind everything is Tom Wilkinson's duplicitous railway baron -- a draggy mess, the movie is essentially counting on Depp's broad comic theatrics to carry the day much as he did in Pirates. And I've got to give the guy some credit: he commits to the part with the same freewheeling abandon that he showed in Captain Sparrow's first outing, before the character became his version of a Saturday Night Live sketch that overstayed its welcome. Furthermore, I think that Verbinski and Depp are onto something interesting in the way they present Tonto via a dramatically clunky, but thematically provocative framing device that has an elderly version of the character narrating the story of his first adventure with John Reid to a young boy visiting a Wild West attraction at a carnival in the early 1930s. When the kid first encounters Tonto, he's dressed to reflect the conventional pop culture presentation of an "Indian." Each time the film cuts back to this scene, though, he's shown shedding bits of that wardrobe and eventually donning a traditional suit and bowler hat -- a visual metaphor for the transformation of the American West from an exotic frontier into just another territory to be developed and exploited by commercial interests.
All that said, there's really no way the film or Depp himself can clear the hurdle of casting a white actor in a role that has largely defined the screen image of Native Americans for decades. That's not to imply that the actor's japery is in any way malicious (which it isn't) or that the filmmakers don't bend over backwards to ensure that Tonto emerges as a hero in his own right (which they do). Regardless, watching Depp mince about in a headdress and war paint and roll his eyes at the gawky white man by his side can't help but feel vaguely uncomfortable, not to mention exploitative. If Verbinski and Depp were really serious about subverting the iconography of The Lone Ranger, they would have let an actual Native American actor reimagine and redeem the character of Tonto instead of treating the role as another comic skin for the star to slip into. But, once again, that speaks to their general disinterest in this property beyond using it as a vehicle to make a comic, cartoony Western to sit alongside their comic, cartoony pirate movie. The Lone Ranger might have been a perfectly enjoyable buddy Western... if only it didn't have to be about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
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