There’s a scene in the middle of The Lone Ranger that sums us the entire movie; John Reid, aka the Lone Ranger, and Tonto wake up during the night and spot Silver, the Ranger’s trusted steed. standing in a tree on a limb wearing the Ranger’s white hat. Tonto then makes some remark; I don’t remember what it was, but like the scene itself, it wasn’t very funny. Just sort of odd. And unnecessary.
The Lone Ranger is a mega-budget summer tent pole movie from Gore Verbinski that feels like a weird personal project, except it has nothing to say. It reminded me of one of Terry Gilliam’s less-than-successful movies, like The Brothers Grimm, but lacking any sort of stamp of authorship. Gilliam may not always be successful, but you ALWAYS know when you’re watching a Terry Gilliam movie.
I kind of admire Verbinski’s nerve in making a big summer movie that’s a little quirkier than usual; he’s been given upwards to 200 million dollars by Disney to deliver a worldwide blockbuster, and he gives the studio a movie that features cannibalistic rabbits and a tree-climbing horse. There’s something almost subversive about The Lone Ranger, but Verbinski doesn’t have the point of view or forceful personality of a Terry Gilliam that would give the audience a unique and thorough vision. Verbinski is not an artist, he’s more a competent studio hand whose movies are usually well made and fun to watch, but not a lot of depth. Unfortunately, this one isn’t even fun to watch.
Verbinski’s been given too much money to play with, at least for a Western. There’s just something about the genre’s inherent minimalism that resists lots of money being thrown at it and any attempt to tamper with it. We recently had Cowboys and Aliens, a big budget attempt by a similarly accomplished filmmaker (Jon Favreau) to mix the Western with Science Fiction that failed, as did Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West before that.
Though Verbinski isn’t attempting a genre mashup like those two movies, he isn’t making a straight morality tale either, the kind of thing the Western does best. He’s trying to do with The Lone Ranger what worked so well with his Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which is gussy it up with a whole lotta weird. But that’s fine with a Pirate movie because A) there isn’t really a Pirate movie genre of note, and B) Pirate movies don’t do well critically or commercially, which is probably why A) there isn’t really a Pirate movie genre of note. Since there was no need to show any sort of “respect” to the genre, Verbinski had license to do whatever he wanted.
It was okay for his partner-in-crime, Johnny Depp, to play Captain Jack Sparrow as a rock star/drag queen pirate who seemed sort of ethereal; he never really committed 100% to what was going on around him in any given scene. He was always in that drunken haze where he reacted verrry slooowly, almost to the point where he wasn’t reacting to whatever was going on so much as just commenting on it. So if Verbinski wanted to throw in a lot of pirate ghosts or a demonic monkey or a squid-faced arch-enemy, that was not a problem. Yes, it was ridiculous, but Depp thought it was just as ridiculous as well.
Depp’s Tonto doesn’t work because it wants to be so respectful of the Native Americans and their culture, while at the same time give him that not-quite-all-there aura that worked for Jack Sparrow. It worked for Sparrow because Sparrow was an idiot who also happened to be very lucky. But Tonto is supposed to be wise, guiding the bewildered John Reid (played by Armie Hammer, who makes no impact as a personality in the movie whatsoever) on a quest to fulfill his destiny and become the Lone Ranger. But Depp can’t have it both ways; you can’t play the all-knowing mentor while playing the confused, Sparrow-esque bumpkin at the same time.
The thing is, Verbinski and Depp already made a movie together that The Lone Ranger is trying to be, and that’s the brilliant, Oscar-winning Rango. It dealt with the same ideas of creating a new identity in an untamed society, but it did it with so much more flair and panache. All of the characters in Rango had personality. They were fun. Very little in way-too-long Lone Ranger is fun.
But there are elements of The Lone Ranger that are done very well and worth mentioning. If this movie did indeed cost over 200 million dollars to make, you can see it in the final product. It’s a beautifully grimy movie; Verbinski, cinematographer Bozan Bazelli, production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Penny Rose have given the movie a wonderfully weather-beaten look set against the beauty of the John Ford-favorite Monument Valley. Everyone also looks appropriately filthy; there isn’t a fingernail in sight that isn’t lined with dirt or a face that doesn’t have dust just caked on it. Attention was paid to the details; the movie looks so authentic you can almost smell it.
Verbinski also does action sequences exceedingly well. The final, extended chase scene, involving multiple trains and people (and horses) jumping in and out and on top of moving train cars, is a master class in editing. You always know where all the characters are in relation to one another through the multi-location chaos. That scene may be the most competently executed and flat-out thrilling action sequence of the summer so far (along with the exciting and ridiculous runway chase in Fast and Furious 6.)
And that’s all I have to say about The Lone Ranger that’s positive. It’s just an over-sized and hollow mess. Other than admiring the mechanics of the final chase, there was no joy to be seen anywhere in the movie. But there was something really nagging me as I left the theater….
The movie is told in a wraparound, much like The Princess Bride, with an older man (this time, it’s Depp as Tonto in Little Big Man old age makeup) telling the story to a young child (played by Mason Elston Cook and wearing a Lone Ranger get-up.) It’s 1933, over sixty years after the events in The Lone Ranger have taken place. Tonto is working as a living wax figure in a traveling Wild West show, standing behind glass as an exhibit titled “The Noble Savage.”
As the movie ended and the credits rolled with the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding off into the horizon as the William Tell Overture played, I couldn’t help but wonder, what happened to Tonto over those sixty-plus years that ended up with him working as a 100-year-old man in a carnival sideshow? If Johnny Depp wants to honor the Native American, and I sincerely believes that’s what he set out to do, then maybe that’s the story he should tell. Riding off into the sunset isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.