Within the microcosm of my social sphere the ads for The Lone Ranger have been received with a universal “zzzz.” Yet this dismissal has also been shadowed by a surprising level of hopeful optimism. Well, maybe not that surprising; it would appear that slapping “From The Team That Brought You Pirates of the Caribbean” on the ads does indeed mean something to a lot of people. So when I’m asked if the film is any good, my response of “no” is generally met with a deflated “Dammit. I was hoping it wasn’t as bad as it looked.” Most of my friends already have theories on what must have sunk the film, but the truth is there isn’t really anything that could have been tweaked to save The Lone Ranger. In my attempts to succinctly pinpoint the film’s failure, I keep coming back to the same critically unhelpful conclusion — it just shouldn’t have been made. Everyone involved wanted to make a great movie, I’m sure. Just not this one.
The film follows the overall basics of the existing Lone Ranger story: A group of Texas Rangers, including John Reid (Armie Hammer) and his brother (James Badge Dale), are ambushed and killed by the wicked outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). A Native American named Tonto (Johnny Depp) finds John Reid and saves him. Together they go after Cavendish as vigilantes. Not that anyone in the film’s target demo will know or care where the film stays true and where it strays. There hasn’t been a Lone Ranger film in over 30 years. And 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger isn’t exactly a beloved classic. Most audience members probably know the Ranger’s look, though they might confuse elements of the character with Zorro. People surely will recognize his horse command, “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!” if prompted. Same with Tonto’s affectionate nickname for the Ranger, “Ke-mo sah-bee.” The Ranger’s theme music, from the William Tell Overture, should ring a bell too. And that’s where things presumably stop. This was a prime chance for the filmmakers to re-invent things as they saw fit and redefine the characters in a definitive way. And in theory, this was a team capable of doing just that. Gore Verbinski is a director I quite like. I adore Mousehunt, The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean 1 & 2, and Rango. I even liked the Brad Pitt portions of The Mexican. I similarly like screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (their website Wordplay should be on any aspiring screenwriter’s reading list). And though I’d love to see him tackle a role like Ed Wood again instead of all these make-up-facade Tim Burton characters, I think I have loved Johnny Depp for too long to ever truly be “over” him. Plus, I love westerns. Like my friends, I too harbored optimism that The Longer Ranger was going to be a good movie. Or at least a passably entertaining movie.
As I said, I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with The Lone Ranger, so much as it is just all wrong. Most disastrous, fat-budgeted movies can be described as a “mess.” But Ranger isn’t messy. The sheer talent involved with the film manages to obscure the wreckage in a weird way that becomes its own sort of unpleasantness, like bad food concealed under a mountain of condiments — it deprives you of the release and satisfaction of properly disliking it. At 150 minutes in length, watching the movie gave me the hot sensation of being covered in a thick blanket of dullness that I couldn’t shake. Yet, still, it is hard to point my finger at easy targets like casting or a particularly asinine plot point. Having listened to the filmmakers and actors talk about the project I do not doubt their enthusiasm, which given the $250 million price tag makes it unsettling how uninspired the film feels. It has the energy of a film these people were coerced to make, like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. But I at least understand why everyone was out of juice on that film (and Verbinski still managed to squeeze out that great bonkers Captain Jack in the underworld sequence). So I return to my feeling that the real mistake was simply making this damn thing in the first place. It was doomed from the start to be the Danny DeVito to Pirates‘ Arnold Schwarzenegger — if you’re a fan of Twins analogies.
I believe Gore Verbinski was excited to make a western. Rango already showed the genre was a keen interest of his. Nevertheless, The Lone Ranger is a test-tube baby. It was pre-packaged by Disney – before anyone even considered a storyline – as a way to reclaim the Pirates magic. And in Verbinski’s defense, making a new Lone Ranger film is an infinitely less idiotic idea than adapting a Disneyland ride into a film. Verbinski went after Pirates as an excuse to make a pirate film. No reason that logic couldn’t work a second time here. And now at least he and his team had an existing mythology to start with. So, this in mind, of all The Lone Rangers‘ flaws, the one that strikes me as most perplexing is why it doesn’t actually feel like a western. All the visual archetypes and conventions are here. But something is missing. Back to the Future III isn’t exactly John Ford, but it still manages to elicit the right atmosphere to work its parody. The Lone Ranger is maybe too overblown to foster the right atmosphere. Everything feels phoney. And Verbinski slathers on the Pirates whimsical tone, but it doesn’t stick the way it is supposed to. The tone isn’t inconsistent, but things do feel permanently stuck between disparate intents. Some people have zeroed in on the film’s rampant violence (which from what I understand was radically cut down on to get a PG-13). Sure, if you’re worried about bringing young kids to the film I can see the criticism, but that isn’t really an issue for me. The idea of an ultra-violent Gore Verbinski western sounds fucking fantastic to me (on paper at least). If it is too intense for children, well, that’s Disney’s stupid fault for spending $250 million on it. The problem isn’t that The Lone Ranger is violent. It is that it clearly doesn’t think it is violent. Here the Pirates formula maybe worked against the filmmakers…
Bad guys are constantly being shot and stabbed in Pirates. But they’re all undead. So it can be funny. A guy can literally chase his head around. It is like everyone who worked on that franchise forgot this detail when moving forward here. I know there used to be a version of The Lone Ranger that involved werewolves, though I’m not sure in what way. (There is a pointless vestige of the supernatural still left over, in the form of carnivorous rabbits that we see for about two minutes total over the course of the film.) Pirates captured that old-school Disneyland vibe present in the Pirates and Haunted Mansion rides. It was “spooky,” not “dark.” Spooky is fun. The Lone Ranger is just dark, yet Verbinski isn’t willing to embrace it as true darkness. It is supposed to be good fun. Which means that mere moments after a whole tribe of Indians is murdered by the villains, Tonto cracks a joke about Silver (the horse). And in a converse problem, we’re also supposed to feel really bad about how the Indians were all just murdered. We’re supposed to feel bad about several things in the film that I felt absolutely nothing about. It all just whirls by in a whizzbang gloss of precise but emotionless direction. Verbinski is a great director; too great to churn out a film that is at least enjoyably awful. The man knows how to layer comic action, and in an era of shaky-cam nonsense, he lets you follow what is happening — though here it feels more like he is forcing me to follow. I bet Verbinski missed having swords. Swordplay worked divinely for the kind of epic screwball set-pieces he perfected in the Pirates films, because swords allowed characters to come together during action scenes. With swords the fun becomes more about how you keep the two parties separated, or just close enough for their swords to meet. In a western we have guns. In this respect guns are painfully boring. Verbinski is thus forced to overcompensate since he can’t just have the characters constantly shooting at each other. The results are needlessly busy. The climax of Ranger, which is meant to be the western train battle to end all western train battles, goes on forever and despite being full of cleverly orchestrated shenanigans winds up feeling like we’re just watching Johnny Depp hop back and forth from one box to another box, while periodically stopping to mug for the camera. Since I already brought up BTTF III, compare this train climax with the vastly superior and much, much shorter train climax featuring Doc Brown and a hover-board. When Doc and Marty succeed at the end of their train climax there is a sense of accomplishment and victory. The climax in Ranger just ends. You barely even feel like our two heroes had anything to do with their victory.
Let’s talk about our heroes. It was important to Depp and the filmmakers to present an updated version of Tonto. He’s no mere sidekick. He’s the real driving force behind the Lone Ranger. The Ranger’s puppet master in a way. He has his own agenda. Tonto’s also after Cavendish for murdering Tonto’s village when he was just a boy. Sure. Cool. I’m all for updating characters that are or might be racially offensive or limiting. But the filmmakers only go halfway with it. The film is still called The Lone Ranger. They aren’t going for a full reversal, like Without a Clue (1988) did with Sherlock Holmes and Watson’s relationship. Which wouldn’t work anyway, because people aren’t familiar enough with these characters. The Lone Ranger wants Tonto and Reid to be buddy-cops, with Tonto as the wiser and cooler of the two. Yet the film also wants to use Depp like Captain Jack, to be an elusive weirdo who flits around the storyline doing his own thing. And Depp still wants Tonto to be a deadpan man of few words. This combo really keeps Tonto as he always was, existing entirely to prop up and inspire a white guy. And he is still played by a white guy too! Not exactly progress. But whatever. This movie only got made because Johnny Depp wanted to play Tonto. So white-guy as Tonto. Here we be. Depp isn’t good as the character, but he isn’t bad either. The fact that he is so deadpan prevents Tonto from becoming grating. The harm that this half-hearted reworking really does is render John Reid a total turd of a character. They’ve turned the character into a bumbling city boy, out of place in the West. So Reid has nothing to offer for his half of the buddy-cop duo. He’s just kind of…there. I guess he is supposed to be funny? I like Armie Hammer, but this isn’t the kind of part he should be used for. John Reid is a wisp of a character, given clunky jokes and an awkward romantic subplot involving his dead brother’s wife who, I guess, always liked John better. Or something. You’d need a talent like young Tom Hanks to swing with this sort of character. The mere fact that Hammer was cast confuses me as to what Reid was supposed to be — why cast a 6’5 handsome blond man with a studly voice as a goofy nerd? Hammer can do comedy (I first noticed him on the short-lived Reaper), but he should be playing William Zabka roles. That said, I also can’t blame Hammer too much. Hammer is no more wooden than Orlando Bloom. Less really. Bloom’s boringness created the illusion that Captain Jack was the star of Pirates. Hard to forget that here though, what with the title.
The saddest part of The Lone Ranger is that the few times it actually harkens back to its roots, the film almost works. When the William Tell Overture finally busts in during the train climax, the power of good music briefly tricked me into thinking I was excited by what was going on. But the filmmakers don’t trust the original Lone Ranger. Updating Tonto is a good thing. Seeming embarrassed by the original Lone Ranger is not. And the filmmakers are embarrassed. They insecurely undercut their source anytime they do something with it. The only time Armie Hammer says “Hiyo, Silver” is in the final scene of the film. And after he says it, Tonto tells him to never say it again. It is supposed to be funny, drawing attention to the cheesy nature of the previous Lone Ranger. I don’t care enough about the property to say that this is disrespectful, but looking down on the very character you decided was awesome enough to spend $250 million on is inherently dumb. If Disney was still going to cast a white guy as Tonto, they might as well have just made a proper Lone Ranger film. Nobody wins here.
It saddens me that this film will surely get a way bigger pass from the world than John Carter did, ironically I think because John Carter actually came close to being a really good film. Its proximity to greatest made its failings all too obvious. The Lone Ranger deserves the derision JC got. But I think audiences will be bludgeoned into indifference by the end of the film and just not care enough to pile on a similar amount of shit and vitriol.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars