Contrary to the conventional notion that corporations avoid risk, Disney’s new Lone Ranger movie certainly doesn’t play it safe. Eccentric and misguided enough to be almost perversely fascinating, the film doesn’t lack nerve; it’s just not very good.
Perhaps the first question is why Disney, and the filmmaking team behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and writers Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe), decided to invest more than $200-million (U.S.) in a bit of mid-20th-century cowboy kitsch about a masked lawman and his native sidekick, Tonto. Based on a radio series (1933 to 1954) and subsequent TV show (1949 to 1957), the story would seem neither in demand nor politically sensitive. When it comes to mining boys’ adventure stories, defaming pirates may be fair game, but stories about western justice and native Americans? Not so much.
To a degree, the writers have recognized the problem by providing the story with some narrative finesse. Possibly taking a cue from the unreliable narrator in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), The Lone Ranger begins in 1933 (the first year of The Lone Ranger radio show) at a San Francisco carnival, where a boy in a Lone Ranger mask is startled when a half-clad figure in a sideshow diorama about Indians comes to life. The old man asks for some popcorn and tells the boy a story, starting back in 1869, about how he first met the man who became the Lone Ranger.
The old man, presumably, is intended to be a prankster, or sort of spirit guide to the past, though the idea is barely developed as more than a framing device. We first meet John Reid (Armie Hammer), a pacifist lawyer and free thinker (he’s reading John Locke) on the archetypal train to the frontier, when a gang of bandits attacks it to free a prisoner, the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Tonto (Johnny Depp) is a prisoner in the same jail car. With a nod to the movies’ first action western, Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), and innumerable train-jacking movies since, the assault on the train is a long, elaborate and cleverly executed sequence. But that, unfortunately, is about as good as The Lone Ranger gets.
Although they come from different backgrounds and philosophies, the naive straight man John and the painted native shaman Tonto – who saves his life – join forces to fight against the notorious Cavendish and his henchmen. An assortment of familiar western types is displayed: There’s a shady railroad tycoon, Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), an honest sheriff who’s also the Lone Ranger’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), and his plucky wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). For good measure, there’s a blowsy madam (Helena Bonham Carter) who has a prosthetic leg that doubles as a shotgun.
All of them seem, essentially, to be set-dressing. The central bromance between Tonto and the Lone Ranger is a variation on the revisionist western formula Jim Jarmusch used in his 1995 film Dead Man, also starring Depp, albeit with considerably less subtlety. Depp has said he intended his portrayal of Tonto to be more culturally sensitive than previous versions of the character. But using his usual grab bag of deadpan reactions and eccentricities, Depp plays Tonto as a clown in white makeup, wearing a dead crow on his head – which he apparently thinks is alive – and speaking in movie-Indian pidgin English (“Horse says you are spirit walker …”). A midpoint explanation for Tonto’s behaviour as a result of his tragic past provides some excuse, but the notion that exaggerating the stereotype somehow subverts it doesn’t really wash. Tonto is, in a freshly idiosyncratic way, still a squirm-worthy character.
Another problem is that Depp’s oddball performance feels separate from the rest of the film, particularly overshadowing Hammer’s Lone Ranger. Though putatively the star character, he’s a consistently bland figure who transforms from milquetoast city slicker to straight-shooting lawman with little development.
Throughout, forced comedy and violent excesses are jammed together: The Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, for example, is a magical creature that can apparently levitate, which seems designed to appeal to children. But if so, how does that jibe with a scene of Cavendish carving a man’s heart out of his chest and eating it? Is this for fans of My Little Pony or The Silence of the Lambs?
As with the Pirates films, Verbinski progressively pumps up the spectacle from huge to preposterous, with CGI-heavy scenes of charging locomotives, horse races atop trains and massive, collapsing trestles that provide all the suspense of looking at fantasy paintings on the sides of vans. The emphasis on the gargantuan scale, if anything, undermines the grandeur of John Ford’s famed locations of Utah’s Moab and Monument Valley, which is its own kind of insult to the history of the western.