Thursday, July 4, 2013

"The Lone Ranger"

 3 / 5 

There's a fantastic, fun 90-minute movie somewhere amid the excess of the 2 hour, 40-minute Lone Ranger.  The excess often feels like filler, sometimes amusing, frequently convoluted, and often alarmingly violent.

Even though the movie is called The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp's Tonto is listed above the title, and the movie's screenplay tries hard to make him the center of attention. Only Tonto, despite an elaborate and long-winded backstory that makes him integral to the central story, isn't nearly as interesting as the movie thinks he is.

His face again buried under layers of makeup, Depp does bring impressive depth to a character whose primary purpose is to spout inscrutable directives and do things like talk to horses.  Wearing a dead bird on his head, he becomes not just the Lone Ranger's sidekick, he turns into the movie's central character, which would be fine except that Tonto remains frustratingly one-note: He's a wise (and wisecracking) native American who communes with nature in exactly the sort of metaphysical way that makes the Indians in The Lone Ranger into the inarguably good guys, while the bad guys are the greedy rail barons who are bent on destruction.

One of those white guys is the particularly loathsome Butch Cavendish, the leader of an evil gang of outlaws.  He's so vile, he reaches right into one of his victims, pulls out a human heart and eats it, leading one of his gang to vomit on screen.  Did I mention this is a Disney movie?

Cavendish is aligned, we learn, with the awful, terrible railway builders -- one in particular who has a secret connection to Tonto, a connection that drove the Indian mad with guilt and led to his self-imposed exile from his tribe.

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the Lone Ranger himself, John Reid, who in this version has never met Tonto before, undoing the traditional legend that had Reid raised by Tonto's tribe as a youngster.  This being the age of "origin stories," The Lone Ranger builds an entirely new one for Reid, which allows he and Tonto to be a sort of Wild West Odd Couple.

Armie Hammer acquits himself well as the strapping, heroic Reid/Lone Ranger, and he manages to find something of a character within the stereotype he's playing: the tall, good-looking, slightly befuddled man of ideals who is a fish out of water in the lawless Old West.

He and Depp work particularly well together, though Depp's deadpan delivery allows for none of his manic energy to come through, and it's hard not to wonder what an unknown Native American actor might have made of the role.

Their breezy, witty banter, though, underscores one of the movie's biggest problems: It can't decide what it wants to be.  Is it a jokey, knowing send-up of Westerns?  Is it a sincere, big-canvas epic?  Is it a manic, Indiana Jones-style action-adventure?  Is it a violent, hard-edged drama?  The answer is yes to all of them, but the combination isn't successful.

The Lone Ranger lurches from one scene to the next, and it's hard to be sure exactly how to react; just moments after a Comanche chief sadly tells Reid "we are all ghosts," the Lone Ranger and Tonto are buried up to their necks in a silly sight gag.  Earlier, the camera lingers over a number of dead bodies before setting up some frivolous moments with Tonto burying the victims and stealing their belongings.

Perhaps worrying that Depp wasn't getting enough screen time and that he was, despite intentions, still the sidekick of the hero, The Lone Ranger offers a completely unnecessary and bizarre framing device that has a very old Tonto performing in a carnival sideshow and relating the story to a young boy, Little Big Man style.  It doesn't add anything to the story, and only serves as a distraction to the central plot as the movie cuts back to Old Tonto over and over.

Nonetheless, there are moments that are ravishing (it was an expensive movie, but every dollar is visible on screen), scenes that are a lot of fun, and an earnest attempt to please, particularly on Hammer's behalf.  If The Lone Ranger had concentrated on telling the story of the Lone Ranger, it might have worked a lot better.

The Lone Ranger is enormously well-made.  It's rarely boring.  It looks terrific.  If you see it, you might be surprised by how much you enjoy it.   At the same time, it's too violent and confusing for kids, too kitschy for most adults, and too square for teens. The Lone Ranger feels like it was manufactured to please a demographically relevant marketing segment -- but in trying so hard to be a specific thing, it ends up not quite being the most important thing of all: completely satisfying.

Viewed July 3, 2013 -- ArcLight Cinerama Dome


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