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REVIEW: “The Lone Ranger”‘s Wild Western Identity Crisis

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by on July 3, 2013

The short review: Despite being overlong and suffering from a dire case of tonal dissonance, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp’s attempt at updating The Lone Ranger for the 21st century is full of spectacle, big budget action and some genuine moments of fun.

The long review: Leaving the theater, I quite honestly had no idea what to think of Disney’s The Lone Ranger. With a budget well north of $200 million and Gore Verbinski at the helm, I was hoping for the kind of unbridled fun and big screen bluster that made his first Pirates of the Caribbean film so enjoyable. Taking an eighty-year-old franchise that’s generally faded from the public memory is about as likely a premise for a summer blockbuster as one based on a theme park ride – and stranger things have happened.

First and foremost, The Lone Ranger suffers from an acute identity crisis. It cannot decide what kind of film it wants to be: a self-serious pop political allegory or a buddy comedy on horseback. The story is told by an octogenarian Tonto, a prosthetic makeup-slathered Depp, who is apparently spending his old age as a sideshow attraction in 1933 at an exhibit about the Great American West. Mistaking a little boy dressed as the Lone Ranger for his old friend, Tonto proceeds to relate the grim tale, often leaping back and forth chronologically, omitting details and misremembering things in a manner that gives the viewer the sense that they can’t quite trust their narrator. That being said, the entire framing device seems superfluous; there’s no real reason we need this weird Night at the Museum-meets-Princess Bride-style set-up, but it does allow the filmmakers to play around with chronology in an effort to obfuscate the truth and give the whole affair a sense of mystery.

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Armie Hammer and Depp share an easy chemistry and play off each other well, which makes the pairing work for me and enjoyable to watch overall, even when I didn’t necessarily love the material. It doesn’t quite have the payoff you might be hoping for, but they perform admirably. Hammer, as John Reid, the by-the-books big city lawyer who comes to the lawless land of the West, proves that he has what it takes to be a leading man, but unfortunately he isn’t really given much of a chance to shine, a gripe I’ll get to in a moment. That being said, expect big things from him down the line. While many of my colleagues are knocking Depp’s Tonto, I didn’t find him nearly as grating. Although many of his aphorisms and bits of wisdom are false positives, Depp plays the iconic character as a capable, albeit spaced-out, man on a mission, driven mad by childhood trauma, on a Sisyphean quest to seek justice in an ultimately unjust world.

Now, when watching an origin story, it’s understandable that a hero will make mistakes, but the Lone Ranger can’t seem to catch a break to save his life. Literally: It takes some sort of otherworldly spiritual intervention by Tonto to bring him back from the brink of oblivion. I understand that this is Reid’s first outing and he’s ill-suited for the rigors of a vast, lawless territory, but he is almost comically inept. Hammer’s charisma and a series of deus ex machina-style solutions are the only thing keeping the Lone Ranger from dying in nearly every predicament he foolishly stumbles into.

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Devin Faraci over at Badass Digest wrote an excellent piece lamenting the lack of out and out heroes in modern cinema; it is a point that The Lone Ranger would do well to take to heart. At its core, The Lone Ranger franchise is about abject heroism in the face of evil. He is not a brooding hero; he is not a dunderheaded flunky. He’s the Lone Ranger, and he needs to rise above the muck and the mire to stand for something more in a world of lawlessness. Verbinski’s version seems almost embarrassed by the character’s earnestness, cutting him off at the knees anytime he borders on doing something legitimately heroic or inspirational. Case in point: the iconic “Hi-yo, Silver!” moment is reduced to a cheap laugh when it could have been ten times more palatable than Zachary Quinto’s insipid “Khaaaaaaan!”

Parents should take note that this is the most generous PG-13 rating that I have seen in a long time. World War Z was a less violent affair than The Lone Ranger. Case in point: the slaughter of an entire Comanche tribe, soldiers ripped apart by bullets from a gatling gun and, oh yeah, the main villain (played by the scene-stealing William Fichtner) rips out and eats a man’s heart. I’ll repeat that – he eats a man’s heart. Many parents trust the Disney brand implicitly, so it’s worth mentioning this in advance. Seeing Judge Doom melt and his eyeballs pop out in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? gave me nightmares when I was younger, so I can only imagine how I would have reacted to seeing a cackling mound of malevolent scar tissue eat the main character’s brother’s internal organs.

It is to the point where it seems like Depp and Hammer are in a different movie entirely than the villains, the gleefully violent Butch Cavendish (the inimitable Fichtner) and the slimy railroad magnate Cole Latham (played to a tee by English actor Tom Wilkinson). For those of us who aren’t impressionable youths, the violence is all well and good in the context of the Western genre. The American West was a brutal, often unforgiving place and the slow march of progress was oiled with plenty of bloodshed. Verbinski clearly has a deep and abiding love of westerns – one needs look no further than the pitch-perfect Rango to see that – and he visually references many classics in his sweeping shots and grandiose vision. The pop-political allegory about the brutality of Manifest Destiny and the grim truths behind the spread of Anglo-American culture across the American continent are a bit on the nose, but let’s face it – you’re not seeing The Lone Ranger for its incisive political commentary.

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It is the juxtaposition of moments like witnessing the slaughter of an entire Native American tribe with that of a horse standing in a tree wearing a white ten-gallon cowboy hat that give me moments of pause. It is entirely too abrupt of a transition, swinging from gruesome to slapstick in a matter of seconds. I’m all for injecting moments of levity into serious situations, but The Lone Ranger is too often too quick to undercut the gravity of what it’s trying to get across with a cheap sight gag. What is meant to entertain and make us smile instead leaves us confused, wondering if there was supposed to be something in between to ease us into the laughter.

By the time the William Tell Overture kicks in and we’re treated to one of the most spectacular set pieces of any film this summer, it’s too late. The film has overstayed its welcome, and not even train-top fistfighting and a carefully crafted balance of practical effects, stunt work, and cinematic swashbuckling can wash the taste out of one’s mouth. I don’t lay this blame at the feet of the cast, least of all Hammer. He’s so damn likable that I’m willing to forgive him some of these foibles and chalk it up to eyebrow-raising decisions made by the screenwriters and the filmmakers. Rather, The Lone Ranger seems like it was the victim of overproduction and fell prey to too many cooks in the kitchen, trying to hit all four quadrants at once.

Ask yourself this: Did I dislike Verbinski’s Pirates films? Do I dislike seeing Johnny Depp wearing silly hats and being weird for a few hours? Am I going into this expecting a western in the vein of classics like Shane, The Searchers, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? If the answer to any of these is “yes,” then in all honesty, The Lone Ranger might not be up your alley. But, if you’re willing to forgive the film its faults (which are considerable) and go along with its tongue-in-cheek attempt at transforming an aging hero into an action comedy, then The Lone Ranger is worth the price of admission. It begs to be seen on the largest screen possible, so if you’re curious, don’t wait until it hits home video; saddle up and make your way down to the multiplex. Just remember to manage your expectations and roll with the film’s unique brand of insanity and you might just have a good time. Despite all its issues, I think I did.

The Lone Ranger is in theaters everywhere today. For my behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew, head on over to the Nerdist Channel.

Did you see the film? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter.