Wednesday, July 3, 2013

'The Lone Ranger' Bites the Dust Big Time

Armie Hammer (r.) and Johnny Depp
as The Lone Ranger and Tonto
The legend you heard is true. The Lone Ranger is a mess. And not a particularly entertaining one.

Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski have made entertaining messes together before. Parts two and three of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy were excessive, campy and convoluted, but they were also fun and full of energy. Forget that Verbinski admitted even he couldn't keep track of all the plot twists in Dead Man's Chest. Give 'em a broadside and full speed ahead!

If only The Lone Ranger had that giddy sense of adventure.

What it has instead is a scattershot story that veers wildly from violent action-adventure to buddy comedy to revisionist western, and the effect is jarring. If Verbinski and screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio had picked one approach and stuck with it, they might have made a better movie. Instead, they deliver a film that has no idea what it wants to be and can't decide whether to revere or parody its main characters.

The Lone Ranger basically adheres to the origin story made popular decades ago on radio and television. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is part of a posse of Texas Rangers tracking down ruthless outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). When Cavendish and his gang ambush the Rangers, Reid becomes the sole survivor of a massacre that takes the life of his brother. After recovering from the attack with the help of the noble Indian Tonto (Depp), he swears to get even, but in the name of justice, not vengeance.

In the fondly remembered TV series of the 1950s, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels played the Lone Ranger and Tonto as straitlaced heroes always ready to defend truth and honor. It was hokey and sincere and taught many a life lesson to impressionable children of the baby boom. Flash forward 60 years and this new iteration of The Lone Ranger no longer believes playing it straight will resonate with contemporary audiences. And so, Tonto isn't a loyal sidekick anymore. He's a spirit warrior with a screw loose who wears a dead crow on his head. Meanwhile, Reid is a noble but clueless buffoon, who needs Tonto's savvy to survive in the wild west.

Our heroes wear their quirks on their sleeves, but they're surrounded by every cliche known to movie westerns: the prairie wife and mother (Ruth Wilson) is steadfast and resolute, the whorehouse madam (Helena Bonham Carter) has a heart of gold (and an artificial leg that fires bullets--okay, that's new), and the railroad executive (Tom Wilkinson) is a corrupt robber baron. And though the movie tries to pepper the supporting characters with quirks of their own (Cavendish is prone to fits of cannibalism; one of his henchmen likes to cross-dress), these traits feel forced and superfluous. The Lone Ranger doesn't have the confidence to tell a conventional old west story, so it piles on the distractions to mask how thin the story really is.

Which brings us back to our heroes. For the movie to have any chance of succeeding, there needs to be chemistry between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Hammer and Depp just don't have it. Like so many buddy films, their on-screen relationship starts out more adversarial than friendly, but it never gels from there. They're both linked by the common cause of tracking down the villain, but mostly they just seem to get on each other's nerves. At one point midway through the film, both Reid and Tonto find themselves buried to their necks in sand. When Reid fashions his escape, he does so inexplicably without making any attempt to rescue Tonto. Perhaps it's payback for Tonto deliberately dragging him through horse manure, but we're never really sure. This is clearly not your grandpa's Lone Ranger.

Depp plays Tonto in full war paint with all the eccentricities and tics that have been his trademark since he peaked with Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl. Quite honestly, I'm getting tired of his schtick. For all his preferences for out-there characters, I would have no objections to him playing more Donnie Brascos and J.M. Barries again and fewer Willy Wonkas and Mad Hatters. There is only so much more heavy makeup and wild costumes I can take anymore. Depp is a gifted actor, but enough already. His Tonto is not a character, but a caricature that does more harm than good to the portrayal of Native Americans in film.

The Lone Ranger manages to tack on a nifty chase scene involving trains near the end of the film, but by then it's too late. All the slogging through a predictable story with characters we really don't care about dooms a film that forgot why these characters mattered in the first place.

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