[19 December 2013]
Thanks to a media backlash machine almost as potent as Disney marketing, for the next decade or so it will be nearly impossible to discuss The Lone Ranger without considering its status as a financial boondoggle—a breaking point for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean dream team of Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But the movie, coming to Blu-ray after an auspicious box office run in the summer of 2013, is worth considering in and out of that context.
Making a mega-budget revisionist western about a once-popular character from a radio serial would normally seem like a risky undertaking, but the same creative team generated gobs of money, and a fair amount of critical acclaim, mounting a similarly dubious-sounding film based on a theme park ride. The success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and its three sequels led directly to Depp and Verbinski’s next challenge, which was doubtless greenlit with visions of a Pirates of the Caribbean redux rather than the eclecticism that characterizes much of Depp and Verbinski’s other work.
Two of The Lone Ranger‘s screenwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, also worked heavily on the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which sometimes tripped over its own interconnected subplots and complicated mythology. Whereas the screenplay for The Lone Ranger is cleaner and less dependent on double-crosses and triple-reverses: after he’s left for dead in the desert, lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) seeks to bring the killers of his lawman brother to justice; those killers are a gang of scummy outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who are framing Comanches for the attacks; rogue Comanche Tonto (Johnny Depp) seeks revenge for his tribe; and it all traces back to the construction of the intercontinental railroad, complete a clearly telegraphed surprise bad guy.
Yet despite this relative directness, The Lone Ranger still manages to run two and a half hours with only a couple of big action scenes, taking the long way around a relatively simple story. Some of these digressions show off the movie’s narrative and thematic ambitions, like a framing device that kicks the movie off at a carnival in 1933 San Francisco, where a young boy meets an elderly Tonto. The story we see is actually (at least nominally) told by Tonto to the boy, with occasional cuts back that allow a more elegiac tone to creep in, and also allow the kid can ask questions about plot points (he would have had a whole notebook full during most of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). But for all of the movie’s plotting, it only occasionally uses this device to have fun with the disconnection between Tonto’s storytelling and the “real” story of the Lone Ranger—the gaps between pulpy western mythmaking and the realities of American history.
Instead, the movie sometimes occupies those gaps without further exploration. The Lone Ranger is less overtly supernatural than the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but it includes brief flights of fantasy, suggesting a version with more surreal elements that might have existed. The bones of one such sequence are visible in the Blu-ray’s single deleted scene, mostly in animatic form, featuring a locust attack and a roughly animated shot of our heroes riding circus animals; maybe other sequences were cut before they were filmed.
Other features on the disc stress the movie’s less fantastical side, calling attention to the authenticity of its locations (one feature is basically an informal guided tour of the American Southwest courtesy of an extremely enthusiastic Armie Hammer). What’s left in the finished film, fantasy-wise, are bizarre (if amusing) shots of vampiric desert bunnies and, more centrally, the murky nature of John’s resurrection after his seeming death. Murkier still is the effect it has on him: does it give him actual super powers, or just righteousness and confidence?
It’s difficult to parse because the movie never quite explains the Ranger’s actual skill set: he seems to be a decent shot, but that’s sometimes dismissed as good luck; he’s often positioned as less savvy than Tonto, but displays more cleverness as the movie goes on. Hammer seems equally adept at playing the dashing hero and the boobish parody of same (see his fine work in Mirror Mirror); here, he essentially does both, and does both well, but sometimes at cross-purposes. The Ranger’s vagueness goes along with, but is never directly connected to, Tonto’s unreliable narrating.
Tonto himself is equally slippery, though more clearly by design: other Comanches, we eventually learn, regard Tonto, with his permanent facepaint and seemingly dead bird he wears on his head, with sad wariness. “It gets on a man’s nerves,” Fichtner’s Cavendish says about Tonto continuing to feed his bird-hat, and he might well be speaking for the segment of the audience who has tired of Depp’s perceived shtick—an over-it dismissal that has less to do with the quality of Depp’s work over the past decade than the speed of backlash culture.
Depp certainly goes strange again for this performance—itself a newly crowned aesthetic crime, because summer blockbusters could use more self-seriousness. Moreover, his strangeness here employs a more subdued deadpan than the one he wore as Jack Sparrow, a much more conniving and verbal character than Tonto. Depp was clearly inspired by silent comedy, and his sight-gag skills are formidable; the movie’s biggest laughs come from behavior and action, not the sometimes-stilted Ranger/Tonto banter.
Ultimately, the weirdness of Depp and the movie at large is at least engaging, which is more that can be said for the relationship business between John and his dead brother’s wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). Too dour to be called romantic and not developed enough to make the dourness work, it drags the movie out only to put Rebecca and her son into the exact same damsel-in-distress position that a more traditional western would employ. The tedium of the love interest material reveals a simpler problem with the movie: It’s effectively another superhero origin that takes too long to get its hero up and running.
Given all that, The Lone Ranger nonetheless delivers a great deal of panache as a comic adventure. It helps that Verbinski’s expensive movies actually look expensive: lush, textured, and beautifully composed. He’s one of the most talented action-fantasy stylists around, even if he and Depp seem drawn towards overelaborate stories that don’t match his visual sense. The mixture of practical and digital effects, along with those much-vaunted Southwest locations, makes this weird and sometimes surreal movie seem more real, in some ways, than a lot of its action-fantasy-adventure competition.
As much as the film has in common with Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, it also resembles his animated movie Rango (also starring Depp, and also an offbeat western). Verbinski brings an infectious sense of cartoon physics to the movie’s second and final major action sequence. Around the two-hour mark, with all of the movie’s chess pieces finally in place, a massive multi-train-car chase ensues, set to the clarifying, invigorating call of the William Tell Overture. Depp riffs on Buster Keaton, Hammer performs ridiculous feats of derring-do (including riding a horse through a train, which Verbinski makes look about as believable as possible), and train cars hurtle past each other with perfect timing. The sequence lasts almost exactly15 minutes, and it’s one of the best climaxes of any movie this year.
A movie can’t survive by its climactic action sequence alone, but The Lone Ranger does manage to make its best section feel like a payoff, not just an isolated stretch of inspiration. For 15 glorious minutes, the best bits of an unwieldy movie come together. Even before then, those best bits have a weirdo pizzazz so often missing from large-scale filmmaking.