Was anyone really clamoring to revisit this knotty, nostalgia laden hero? Is the demographic who remembers the character from radio, or his lengthy run on ’50s TV really anxious to see his masked persona and his faithful Indian companion ride high in the saddle again? Is the clarion call of “Hi Ho Silver!” still viable in 2013? After all, an attempted early ’80s reboot failed miserably (perhaps best known for casting unknown model Klinton Spilsbury as the titular champion, only to have his dialogue eventually overdubbed by James Keach) and a 2003 TV movie didn’t deliver, ratings wise (thus the planned spin-off series was cancelled). In fact, the Western genre still walks on the wobbliest of cinematic legs, no longer enjoying the commercial cultural impact of the ’30s through ’60s.
So how do you jumpstart interest in a persona and a motion picture which will more or less rework the legend of the Lone Ranger to fit his post-modern meaning, as well as deal with the 800 pound Native American in the room? Well, if you’re Disney, you get Johnny Depp to profess a long standing heritage to a specific tribe (or two), hire the man who made the unthinkable – read: The Pirates of the Caribbean – into an international fiscal juggernaut (we’re talking multi-billions – with a “B” – of dollars here) and pray for something close to a success. In the House of Mouse’s case, they made the right choice. While this new Lone Ranger is no masterpiece, it’s also one of the most inventive and insane movies of the Summer 2013 season.
Let’s get the basics out of the way right up front. The story here is told from Tonto’s perspective. The former great warrior is now part of some early ’30s San Francisco carnival sideshow on the Old West. Wearing impressive age make-up and doing his best halting ‘Injun’ accent, Depp narrates the adventures of a former Texas Ranger turned lawyer named John Reid (Armie Hammer). Returning to his prairie town to help meter out law and order, he instead becomes part of a posse hoping to bring the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to justice. One ambush later, and everyone assumes our hero is dead. Rescued by Tonto, our soon to be masked man learns of an impending war with the Cherokee nation, a secret location loaded with silver, and the possible link between the bad guys and railroad magnate Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson).
Okay, so the genius here is not in the narrative. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and will surely see again (ala The Good, The Bad, and the Weird). Indeed, the greatness offered by director Gore Verbinski and, for the most part, his cast, is a clear vision of what this Lone Ranger should be – read: a overflowing homage to each and every horse opera trope trotted out over the last century of cinema. Old fashioned white hat/black hat dynamics? Check. Mid-era focus on repressing the redman and making him pay for his heathen ways? Yep. The ’60s spin on moralizing followed very quickly by the black hearted chutzpah of the Spaghetti spin on the material? Absolutely. There’s even healthy doses of the revisionism that took place in the ’80s and ’90s when gun totting heroes were turned into complex characters and their aboriginal prey a noble Native tribe worthy of reverence, not rejection.
So Verbinski’s got the basics down pat. Better still, he doesn’t let the allusion lie. Instead, he infuses this 145 minute movie with so many visual nods and references that a drinking game could be invented out of a freeze frame search and sip. There are obvious mentions of the movie made by John Ford and of his acting collaborator John Wayne. There’s takes on Sergio Leone and Alejandro Jodorowsky (famed for his slick ’70s psychedelic oater El Topo) as well as the careful consideration over the claims of various tribes and the treatment of same. It’s as if Verbinski took everything he knew about the genre, shoved it in a blender, added even more material from his meticulous research, and whipped it up into a cool cocktail of measured meta reimagining. Put another way, this is the film Tim Burton keeps wanting to make but can’t quite wrap his fringe dwelling outsider brain around.
Because he is so adept with action (the last act train chase, accompanied by a cheeky, nonstop playing of the iconic William Tell Overture, riffs on everything from Buster Keaton’s The General to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Verbinski delivers the commercial goods. But he also recognizes that there has to be more here than a mere retelling of a classic tall tale. So out goes the typical artistic approaches and, in the place are put a series of sensational acknowledgments to why the Western remains part of our film folklore. Sure, there is also a desire to make this movie work, the possible sequels hopefully becoming as profitable as a certain swashbuckling Captain and his various sea-going adventures.
But The Lone Ranger doesn’t really relegate itself to that kind of series. Instead, the character was apparently conceived to bring some mystique back to an already tired ideal. Similarly, the original visualization of the hero was aimed squarely at kids. Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels took their role model position very seriously and constantly defended themselves and the material for its various moralistic codes. This new version doesn’t sway from the basics of the good/bad ideal. Reid and Tonto are flawed, but basically decent. It’s everyone else that plays it as varying levels of evil. Add in the truly oddball touches like Helena Bonham Carter as a frontier madam with a scrimshaw leg that also doubles as a rifle, and you’ve got enough conflicting creative elements to turn even the most open minded viewer’s aesthetic to mush.
Yet by making it all work, and work brilliantly, Verbinski restates his claim to commercial auteur status. He may have misstepped a bit with the last two Pirate movies, but his Oscar winning animated film Rango (also a revisionist Western, FYI) proves his penchant for treating the kitchen sink like a solid source, not an artistic liability. Everything he sets up pays off, every bit of backstory dragged into the already overloaded narrative returns the favor when the time it right. Sure, some will be turned off by the very nature of such an approach and for the demo supposedly primed for this character’s return, a lot of what happens will simply sale over their underage heads. But when you consider what he was working with, both historically and material-wise, Gore Verbinski turns The Lone Ranger into a ridiculous over the top treat. Perfection? No. Ambitious anarchy? All right