Directed by Gore Verbinski. Screenplay by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio; based on a screen story by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio; based upon characters created by Fran Striker, George W. Trendle. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski. Music by Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Bojan Bazelli. Edited by James Haygood, Craig Wood. Production designed by Jess Gonchor. Starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Barry Pepper, JD Cullum.
It is well past time that someone…perhaps us…staged an intervention for Mr. Johnny Depp. Sometimes hailed as the world’s greatest living actor (especially in areas where there are plenty of Hot Topics still open), Johnny Depp is indeed an actor capable of sublime greatness. See his brilliant turn as Ed Wood in 1994. Or him as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. Certainly we can mention Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, or Donnie Brasco. I even have fond memories of him as the dogged everyman given a murder assignment in John Badham’s underrated Nick of Time. We could go on.
But this isn’t about that Johnny Depp. This is about the Johnny Depp that was cast in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. At first stymying Disney executives who were taken aback and downright worried about his daffy turn as Capt. Jack Sparrow, Pirates was a huge success for Depp–one that he apparently learned all the wrong lessons from. It led to a series of self-consciously stylized, hollowly precious, calculatingly “offbeat” performances from Depp that have now reached their absolute nadir. We now no longer regard Depp the actor. He’s Depp the circus clown. Everything he touches is now buried under mannered tics, white pancake makeup, bizarre hair, cutesy affectations, celebrity inspirations, borscht belt “comic” touches and exaggerated pantomime. Every scrap of his craft is now a monument to wretched excess. Dark Shadows. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Alice in Wonderland. Multiple Pirates sequels. He’s gone too far, this Johnny Depp. And he must be stopped. Someone please stop him.
Which brings us to The Lone Ranger. Seemingly engineered by marketing executives, The Lone Ranger is Disney’s latest attempt to build a franchise on the back of an existing property, and perhaps boost sagging attendance at one of their theme park areas (this time it’s Frontierland’s turn). Utilizing the talents of director Gore Verbinski (Pirates 1-3) and Depp, Lone Ranger is a gargantuan adventure that has everything a $200+ million dollar budget can buy…especially sloppy storytelling and nightmarish bloat, two things that are apparently very expensive. And what doesn’t help is Depp’s top-billed performance as Tonto, which walks the line of racial sensitivity…and then dances across it, Stepin Fetchit-style.
But we’ll get back to Depp. Let’s right now study the Lone Ranger. You know, the guy the movie is supposed to be about. See how Depp hijacks even the very discussion of the film itself? The iconic character of the Lone Ranger first appeared on radio in 1933 and later became a hero of serials, TV and comic books (he is even the grandfather of Britt “Green Hornet” Reid). The movie honors his backstory but takes forever to get to it. The year is 1869, and after surviving a big train heist, book-learnin’ lawyer John Reid is deputized by his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas ranger, and then becomes the sole survivor of an ambush by nasty outlaws led by the vile Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Determined to avenge his lawman brother, the lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) becomes an outlaw himself and teams up with a Comanche Indian named Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has his own score to settle with Cavendish, actually calling him an evil spirit who roams the earth, which might explain why “nature is out of balance,” he intones, allowing for scenes where horses can climb trees and CGI mini-scorpions can pop out of the desert sand and attack our heroes. Tonto dubs Reid a “spirit walker,” a man who cannot be killed, which means either Tonto’s a nutball or the movie effectively has zero stakes. Remember when westerns were about actual living breathing people?
Tonto urges Reid to put on a mask and vanquish his enemies, which he does, after many scenes of Reid deciding not to put on the mask, because when people go to see The Lone Ranger, they really want to see a lot of beats where the Lone Ranger decides whether he’s going to be the Lone Ranger. Eventually Tonto and Reid find themselves archenemies of a corrupt railroad CEO (Tom Wilkinson), who is employing outlaws to stage Indian raids that would nullify treaties with each nation, allowing the US government to sweep them away and buy up their land. Kids love movies about broken treaties and land disputes. Trust me. They’re nuts for it.
That’s the real problem with The Lone Ranger. Who is this movie for? Tonally, it’s all over the map and it’s seemingly–quite poignantly–embarassed by its own source material. Lone Ranger fans will be annoyed at the way the film uses humor to mock and satirize him at every turn, so ashamed are the filmmakers of the characters they’re playing with. The film’s hero is ostensibly John Reid, but the movie reimagines him as a “hero” who does little in the way of heroics–he’s instead a straight man for that card, Tonto. The plot is too confusing and adult for kids, and yet only kids will like the racially insensitive antics of Depp as Tonto. Western aficionados won’t appreciate the film’s dismissive, souped-up attitude, the whole “straight westerns are for squares, man” thing. Action fans will perk up during a pair of clever train sequences, but will be bored at the draggy midsection. It takes it’s child-friendly material and pumps it up with violence, so much so that at one point a villain cuts out a hero’s heart and eats it.
ICYMI: Yes. A villain cuts out our hero’s brother’s heart, and eats it. In a Disney movie. Walt Disney Pictures. Got the logo and everything. And then there’s endless gunfire, and then some light comedy and then some weird surrealism, and then Depp keeps trying to feed a dead bird on his head, and some slapstick and then there are cutesy references to the history of a character (all mocked, naturally), and then a nasty scene of Indian genocide by way of gattling gun is punctuated by a silly shot of Silver the horse improbably standing on a tree branch wearing a funny hat…and… No, seriously. Who the hell is this movie for? Not in recent memory has a cross-pollination amongst demographics been so blatant or nasty. Sure, The Lone Ranger checks all the boxes of mass-market appeal, but none of the individual elements work together. Every scene in the film represents a house divided against itself.
Depp has been a sore spot ever since announced, as casting a white actor as a Native American certainly raises eyebrows. What’s the best way to say this? His Tonto is an embarrassment. Speaking in broken English (a trait of the character that was cliché in 1933 and now reads as archaically insensitive), caked with white face paint, in love with theatrical prancing and given that permanent dead bird prop…Depp’s Tonto is a noxious pest shoved in our face over and over again. The film cannot get enough of him, cutting to him every other minute for an eyeroll or ironic commentary. It’s bad enough that none of his humor works, but the movie’s addiction to Depp’s schtick is uncomfortable and relentless. It’s always sad to watch a character actor repeatedly try to steal scenes, and fail. It’s telling that in trying to figure performances that most accurately compare to what Depp is asked to do here, I racked my brain and came up with only one: Jar Jar Binks.
Even the film’s structure bows to the charisma of Tonto. It opens at a 1933 fair, with an elderly Tonto (Depp in laughable old-age makeup), now part of a traveling Wild West show with living exhibits, telling the origin of The Lone Ranger to a little boy. We keep cutting back to this frame story, as the boy asks questions and pokes holes in Tonto’s recollections, like he’s Fred Savage in The Princess Bride. This whole conceit, one stolen from Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, serves no purpose other than to add to the running time and give Depp a chance to ham it up as an unreliable narrator, as well as solidifying the suspicion that this is Tonto: The Movie, not The Lone Ranger.
Not that our hero really does much to warrant centering a story around him anyway. He’s a de facto protagonist, this John Reid, with not much in the way of a moral compass, and not capable of much conversation outside his paltry ideas of vigilantism. Arguably, the most heroic thing he does in the entire film is rob a bank. See him make eyes at his dead brother’s widow (Ruth Wilson), and see how the movie plays that as romantic, when in fact it’s a little creepy (but, hey! Romance! We got the female viewers!) Tonto has his own tragic backstory that–let’s face facts–left him stark raving mad, and so everything he says and does has to be categorized as insane, and yet we’re supposed to cheer his own pursuit of vengeance against Cavendish, even when it gets in a traffic jam with Reid’s own sense of retribution/justice.
This is all very gritty and grim and serious, and it’s far from the lighthearted classic antic of The Lone Ranger, because revenge is the only motivation audiences understand these days, and heroes have to be super-flawed to be worth a damn, apparently. Eventually we realize this new Lone Ranger is a story of two angry, damaged people with no values to speak of, owning nothing between them that would make us dare to root for them. They seem stuck with each other not due to genuine affection, but because they’re jerks that no one else in this universe could even hope to tolerate. Is this where we have to bring our heroes in 2013? Where’s the swashbuckling? The sense of fun? Hell, the very notion that Reid and Tonto stand for anything noble and good and true?
What a mess. And that’s a shame, because it has such a strong cast. Hammer plays the part of John Reid as written. He has shown in better films that he has what it takes to be a leading man. Helena Bonham Carter shows up as a madam with an ivory leg, and she faces the same problem that Depp does: the writing and direction doesn’t bother to make their character quirks funny; it simply prescribes quirks and presumes they are funny. Wilson, so good on BBC’s Luther, is completely wasted. Fichtner and Wilkinson as the villains are far too good at being nasty; it would make this material so much more entertaining to have actors who approach it with a slight wink, to let you know they’re committed, but they’re not above having fun with it. Barry Pepper comes closer to that standard as an Injun-hatin General Custer expy, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with him. It feels more like a last-minute check of the movie’s wild west shopping list (“Hey, we forgot to put someone in a Civil War uniform in here!”)
By the time composer Hans Zimmer abandons his tepid, familiar underscore for the sounds of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (a staple of the Lone Ranger since the 30’s), the film seems to wake up for an elaborate, Looney Tunes-esque climax aboard two separate steam trains on parallel tracks, as Depp minces like he’s Buster Keaton (if only). The train chase is fun–twenty minutes of excitement that perhaps justify the elaborate expense on the filmmakers’ part: building six miles of track and multiple steam engines from scratch in the New Mexico desert. There’s real joy here, as Verbinski finally indulges his skill at composing intricate action sequences with balletic timing. But it’s too little, too late. Bojan Bazelli’s photography captures Monument Valley landscapes nicely—after seeing a few moments of it, you’ll be craving a good modern western. And unfortunately, after seeing The Lone Ranger, you will still be wanting one.
As a fan of Verbinski, The Lone Ranger’s ultimate failure falls at his feet. If he tried to make a spritely blockbuster revisionist western, he failed. Oh, did he fail. The Lone Ranger is rarely fun outside of that climax and shows not much affection for the genre–surprising, since Verbinski made the delightful animated Western pastiche Rango and deserved the benefit of the doubt. His screenwriters, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, had some fun with the western genre in 1998 with the super-pleasurable Mask of Zorro, a movie that The Lone Ranger apes quite deliberately from the word “go,” and doesn’t measure up even close.
If I could name one scene that best typifies the schizophrenic nature of The Lone Ranger, it’s the one that comes at the very end. With the bad guys vanquished and further sequels a possibility (oh God), Hammer spurs his horse and shouts the immortal catchphrase, the one that even Lone Ranger novices know by heart: “Hi ho silver, away!” Cut to Depp’s Tonto, watching, who growls (in Injun-speak, natch) “Don’t ever do that again.” It’s meant to be a wildly irreverent closing joke, but in truth it’s a meaningful raspberry to people who might have come to The Lone Ranger to see, oh…I don’t know. Maybe a Lone Ranger movie. At the end of this tedious movie, what do fans of the central character get? A big, fat, loud, sincere “Up yours.”
You know what, Lone Ranger? Same to you, buddy.