Film Review – The Lone Ranger
Here is one of those instances where I wish I could say a film turned out to be a pleasant surprise, but to do so would make me a liar. On the surface, Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger has all the ingredients of a summer blockbuster: big name stars, high production values, plenty of nice visuals, and a handful of action set pieces. Sadly, there isn’t much beyond its slick-looking surface. This is a shoddily made production containing a plot that flails about, out of control. Events happen that make no sense, as though the story acts only as a bridge to get us from one action scene to the next. I sense the filmmakers had trouble updating the TV show for a modern audience. It’s not silly enough to be camp, but not serious enough to be taken at face value.
Let me give you an example. During one scene, the Native American warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) rides perilously atop a speeding train. He looks over across a gorge, and sees another train he needs to get to riding along parallel tracks (why these tracks are so close together is beyond me). Tonto transfers over by using a ladder to bridge them together, and quite calmly steps onto the other train just as trees smash the ladder/bridge into smithereens. Clearly, this moment is meant to garner some laughs. That’s all fine and dandy, and if this campy quality was kept up throughout, I could’ve gone with it. But just a few scenes earlier, we were given a flashback sequence that very seriously delved into Tonto’s painful history. This hot/cold contrast causes an imbalance in tone. Verbinski (along with screenwriters Justin Haythe and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio) never goes all the way in either direction, instead settling uncomfortably in the middle.
Tonto’s partner in crime is John Reid (Armie Hammer), a prosecutor returning to Texas. John—a peaceful man who believes in the righteousness of the law—returns home from the big city to help his sheriff brother Dan (James Badge Dale) rid the land of criminals. But before this can happen, Dan’s gang gets ambushed by the ruthless killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and his crew. This leaves John no choice but to don the Lone Ranger persona, join forces with his Native American counterpart, and bring Butch and his men to justice. To say that John and Tonto are an “odd couple” would be putting it mildly. It’s amazing that they don’t kill each other right away, since each sees the other as a complete nutcase.
The biggest (and perhaps only) accomplishment in the film is in the look of the world. The art direction plants us firmly in 19th century America, during a time when the railroad brought the country together. Sets, props, and costumes all vibrate from a heightened sense of reality. Verbinski directed three of the four Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the kind of hyper-realistic quality that was displayed there has transferred well here. Wide angled shots show the expansiveness of the deserts and mountain ranges, and some of the images captured truly are breathtaking. Which makes it all the more disappointing when we are given scene after scene of action made entirely out of computer generated effects. John and Tonto become mere cartoon characters as they jump from high distances, survive explosions and shootouts, and run across moving trains with relative ease. Could they have at least tried to make it seem like what they were doing was difficult? How can there be any suspense when our heroes act like they’re not putting in any effort?
I’m an admirer of Johnny Depp, but his portrayal of Tonto left me confused. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether he played an authentic Native American or not, but often I felt he was merely playing around instead of acting as a real character. Tonto is a mild version of Captain Jack Sparrow, from the hair styling down to the facial expressions. Armie Hammer is the straight man in this duo, and he does what he can with a character that’s as stiff as a board. In fact, there are entire scenes dedicated to Tonto and John just horsing about. Again, if this were meant to only be a ridiculous comedy, it would work, but we’re presented a plot that actually tries to set up real stakes. Therefore, the comedic scenes felt out of place. They quickly wore out their welcome, adding unnecessary filler to a bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
Squint really hard, and The Lone Ranger resembles something that could have been entertaining. With the amount of talent involved, it should have been. From Helena Bonham Carter’s gun-toting saloon girl to Tom Wilkinson’s railroad representative and even Barry Pepper’s loyal union soldier, the pieces should have made a better whole. Instead, what’s left is a barely coherent story lightly disguised by big explosions and CGI. This never aims to be more than just ordinary, and that right there is its biggest fault.
Final Grade: C-