Directed by: Gore Verbinski.
Written by: Justin Haythe and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Tonto), Armie Hammer (John Reid), William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish), Tom Wilkinson (Latham Cole), Ruth Wilson (Rebecca Reid), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Harrington), James Badge Dale (Dan Reid), Bryant Prince (Danny), Barry Pepper (Fuller), Mason Cook (Will), JD Cullum (Wendell), Saginaw Grant (Chief Big Bear), Harry Treadaway (Frank), James Frain (Barret), Joaquín Cosio (Jesus), Damon Herriman (Ray), Matt O'Leary (Skinny), Stephen Root (Habberman).
I regret missing Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger on the big screen this summer. Based on the horrendous reviews, and poor box office (for a movie this size), I didn’t feel it was necessary to take time I didn’t really have when the film opened to ensure I caught it before it left theaters. Watching the film at home, I have to admit I was kind of mystified that out of all the blockbusters this summer, that The Lone Ranger was the film critics all seemed to pile on. The film is far from perfect – it’s far too long and has some sudden tonal shifts that don’t feel natural – but it is also among the most ambitious blockbusters of the year. Is it a good movie? I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t come close to being the disaster so many people seemed to think it was when it was released.
The film stars Armie Hammer as John Reid – a big city lawyer returning to his small Western town to become the head prosecutor. When we first meet him, on the train home, he doesn’t even believe in carrying a gun. He wants to do everything by the book – to civilize the West in other words, take it out of the hands of the thieves and murderers, and into the hands of normal people. It’s on that train ride that he first meets Tonto (Johnny Depp), who in this version of The Lone Ranger isn’t just a sidekick beholden to The Lone Ranger, but a man on a quest for redemption for the sins of his past – if anything, Reid becomes his sidekick, not vice versa. This change of Tonto – from one note comic relief, into a fully rounded out character, is one of the biggest (and best) changes in this new Lone Ranger.
It is also on this train ride, that Reid will first meet Butch Cavendish, an unrepentant murderer and criminal, who is being transported home so that he can be hanged. Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the most powerful man in this town, and representative of the railroad which will transform the Wild West, wants to make an example of Butch. So, of course, Butch will escape. And, of course, Reid’s big brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is the local ranger in town who heads off into the desert, his men (and little brother John) in tow to capture him. And, of course, Dan is married to Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), the woman John was in love with before he left town to become a lawyer. And, of course, things in the desert won’t go as planned, and Tonto will have to rescue John – who will eventually decide to take on his iconic persona and get the bad guys.
The actual plot of The Lone Ranger is probably its single weakest aspect. At two-and-a-half, the plot creaks and lurches at times, and like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the first three directed by Verbinski), the film is overstuffed, and runs way longer than it really needs to. It’s hard to sustain any sort of momentum in a film this size for that long, and The Lone Ranger doesn’t. The fact that most of the characters are merely archetypes doesn’t help very much.
But there is also a lot in The Lone Ranger to admire – including the action sequences, several involving trains, which are expertly crafted by Verbinski and company. There may be too many of them, and like the movie itself, they may run on a little too long, but it’s still rare to see an action movie that can handle action sequences of this size, and make them thrilling, and coherent – Verbinski doesn’t like the shaky handheld camera work and rapid fire editing that so many contemporary action directors prefer – and his action sequences are better for that. The sequences reference directors like Spielberg and Buster Keaton – and if they aren’t up to quite those levels, that’s understandable – few movies are. What’s admirable is that Verbinski isn’t just coasting, and doing the same thing as everyone else.
Perhaps the best thing about the movie is Johnny Depp. After so many years of mugging his way through movies – from the Pirates sequels to Alice in Wonderland to Dark Shadows and most others in recent years – I was expecting another exceedingly eccentric performance from Depp, but that isn’t what I got. I’m not going to argue that he’s subtle in any real way in The Lone Ranger, but he certainly is less manic than in much of his recent work. His Tonto moves and talks slower than Depp has in years – he is seemingly calm, even when he is also seemingly crazy. It’s the best work I have seen from him in quite some time.
The rest of the cast isn’t quite so good. Hammer is pretty good as The Lone Ranger – who the movie uses at times for comic relief because he is so square and rigid on the rules – he is too much of an idealist for much of the movie, until he learns his ideals do not match reality. He does, at times, get buried by Depp, but that’s almost to be expected. The rest of the cast are fine in their roles – but they aren’t given much to do – Fichtner snarls, Wilkinson telegraphs his untrustworthiness, Helena Bonham Carter shows up to an add another eccentric to her resume, Ruth Wilson fades into the background as the damsel in distress, etc.
Perhaps the reason why critics piled onto so much heavily on The Lone Ranger was because of its content concerning the massacre of Native Americans. Is a $200 million tent pole action film from Walt Disney really the correct venue to address such concerns – especially since it seemingly comes out of nowhere in the middle of the movie? Isn’t this supposed to be a fun movie, and not something more serious? It’s true that The Lone Ranger doesn’t integrate this material into the rest of the movie as well as it should have – but the other option would be to ignore it all together, and once again portray Tonto as little more than the Noble Savage we see him as in the museum in 1933, where, while wearing Little Big Man inspired makeup, he encourages a young boy to not buy the official version of history. There is an element of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the film’s view of history – “When legend becomes fact, print the legend” – that movie has a character say. Tonto tries to get the young boy to not look at the legend, but at the fact. It may not be a subtle message, and it may not quite fit in with a summer blockbuster, but I find it preferable than not addressing it at all.
I’ve spent much of this review defending The Lone Ranger, so I now feel obliged to make it clear that I have extremely mixed feelings on the movie. I had fun with much of the movie – you could have great fun playing a game of spot the references in the film, of which there are many – and I enjoyed the action sequences, and Depp’s performance as Tonto. I also have to admit that the film is far too long - it drags mightily in the long middle portion of the movie. And while I admire the fact that movie didn’t simply ignore the massacre of Native Americans by white settlers, I also have to admit that it wasn’t integrated all that well into the rest of the movie, and made for some bizarre tonal shifts the movie doesn’t handle very well. I’m not sure if The Lone Ranger is a good movie or a bad movie (thank god I stopped assigning star ratings to films, because I would have no idea what to give this one). What I do know if that it is an ambitious movie – a $200 million dollar blockbuster that takes risks. They don’t all pay off but I prefer a movie that swings for the fences, even if it comes up short, to a movie that plays it safe and gives you precisely what you expect. When critics complain that Hollywood doesn’t take many chances in their tent pole movies (and believe me, they will) remember their reaction to The Lone Ranger. This may not be a great movie – it may not even be a good movie – but it takes chances. For that, if nothing else, I admire it.