While clearly designed by the producer, director, writers and star of the blockbusting “Pirates of the Caribbean” series to be another entertainment franchise broadly aimed at family audiences, the film mixes the expected buffoonery and stunts with subjects that demand closer scrutiny.
Drifting off the range into topics such as genocide, mysticism and vigilante self-righteousness, “The Lone Ranger” makes you wonder how seriously you’re meant to take any of this.
If the filmmakers do mean to raise these issues, then they have made a film set in Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” where corruption and venality rule the land and fascism is in full bloom.
What’s more, the film embraces that fascism.
But then do the filmmakers really mean for audiences to think twice about any of this nonsensical action-adventure? The whole thing comes off as a carnival act where anything that can grab audience attention is included.
“The Lone Ranger,” of course,” derives from an American radio series dating from the ’30s that became a famous ABC-TV western in the ’50s. That show — certainly to the contemporary mind but even in its day — evolved into high camp and, given the nature of the white man/subservient Indian relationship, political incorrectness.
The new take on the old series reverse engineers the Lone Ranger/Tonto dynamics. Despite its title, this movie is Tonto’s story. He’s the film’s hero, within the context of a buddy movie, and the film more or less takes his point of view.
Yes, with Johnny Depp playing Tonto you do get a paleface in an Indian role. But I think one can grant a Johnny Depp exception. Such are the amazing performances by this actor in any number of guises and offbeat characters that were he to play Charlie Chan in a new take on that Chinese-American detective I say let him.
In “The Lone Ranger” Depp creates a character who can be deadly serious in a moment that is nonetheless hilarious. He can say one thing and mean three. While his body language and lines create a running commentary on the story, he moves stealthily through this film in outrageously crusted white-face makeup, a dead crow adorning his head and body smeared with mud that renders him a lifelike mummy.
He is the film’s conscience, storyteller and witness. And a perfect foil for Armie Hammer’s clueless Lone Ranger, aka John Reid, an idealistic and naive law school graduate determined to tame the Wild West through law and not by force. It never works out that way.
This is the subject of long debate between Reid and Tonto, who personally has dedicated a silver bullet for his enemy. This is the only justice he knows that has any meaning in the West.
As this quarrel lasts for the entire movie, how can writers Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (“The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies) not mean for a viewer to take it seriously?
This is the same argument that sustained the “Dirty Harry” series with its right-wing progenitors, Clint Eastwood and uncredited screenwriter John Milius, coming down strongly on the side of personal retribution despite the Bill of Rights. “The Lone Ranger” takes the same position.
The justice-by-law guy, Reid, before he fully embraces his inner vigilante, is seen as comical if not a complete moron, out of touch with the outlaw ways of the West. Taking a man prisoner merely increases his chance to kill another day as happens multiple times with Reid’s nemesis Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner in full villain makeup and mode).
As the film’s point of view is Tonto’s and thereby not unsympathetic to the Indian plight in face of so many white men’s lies, its also embraces the natives’ traditional spirituality.
Tonto witnesses Reid’s death and “resurrection” as the Lone Ranger in a Cavendish ambush (a leftover from the old radio series). However, this transpires by means of a pure-white “spirit horse.”
Tonto recognizes this as the beast that carries a man to the other side of life. Yet in this instance it has returned with the man, making Reid a “Spirit Walker.” So Reid, soon to be the Lone Ranger, cannot die in battle. Or so the legend goes.
The film uses the white horse — not as yet named Silver — and the various legends, lore and talisman Tonto pulls from his ever present leather bag as justification of the humorous survival of these two in every impossible situations.
A bullet ricochets until it can do the most damage. Every leap lands them in safety. Every rescue is miraculous.
Thus the Gore Verbknski-directed film is filled with gags in both meanings of the word: Gag as in jokes but also “gags” as in stuntman parlance for action sequences.
These are many and varied but a finale, aboard — above, inside and hanging out of three true-to-period, fast-moving trains featuring gun play, fights, a horse and collapsing bridge, all to the tune of the iconic “William Tell Overture” by Rossini — is Hollywood production at its finest.
I hesitate to say “most entertaining” since each summer movie raises these stakes to such absurd proportions that Hollywood runs a risk of making audiences blasé or even tired of such taxing derring-do. It’s a risk Hollywood is determined to take.
Another risk taken in this PG-13 movie is the odd mix of jokey whimsy and unmistakable savagery. Happening in just enough shadows or below the camera line, a man’s heart is cut from his chest and a settler’s scalp and part of his head sliced away. Meanwhile Reid’s sister-in-law suffers continual rape threats.
The real Spirit Walkers of this movie, the doomed-to-virtual- extinction Indians, haunt the jokey moments and trivialize the fake gun battles. To throw in the cavalier slaughter of a Comanche tribe moments before the Wild West Show Railroad Ride, as this movie does, borders on immoral.
“The Pirates of the Caribbean” hinted at roguery and skullduggery but never sailed far from being a Halloween costume show. These filmmakers got the tone in their new movie wrong.
The Wild West of the film is that of Western caricatures. These may be unfamiliar to younger viewers but are played with such button-busting vigor as to breathe life into them anyway. Tom Wilkinson is a rapacious empire builder, overseeing the construction of the transcontinental railroad while leering at a young mother and wife.
Barry Pepper is the blond Indian-fighting fool Captain J. Fuller, the aforementioned Fichtner a scenery-chewing villain (well, the main one anyway) and Helena Bonham Carter throws herself body and soul into the peg-legged madam, Red Harrington, whose ivory leg features a highly theatrical but impractical weapon.
Then there are roles covered by James Badge Dale as John Reed’s older, Texas Ranger brother Dan and Ruth Wilson as Dan’s wife and John’s former sweetheart that seem to belong in a more serious movie.
This is especially true of Wilson, an arresting British actress who brings a level of dramatic truth to line readings that keep taking the film in another direction.
When she climbs out a train window and starts hanging on for dear life like all the other fools, you keep thinking: This level-headed woman would never do that. Besides where’s she going?
Movies mirror the times and society in which they are made. “The Lone Ranger” is an entertainment that perhaps inadvertently conveys the political divide and uncertainty that grip America.
It proposes fascist solutions to violence and greed yet wrings its hands over the fate of the Indian Nations and rebalances the political insensitivity within the old Lone Ranger/Tonto relationship.
The movie also has an odd framing device wherein Johnny Depp as a Noble Savage mannequin in a Western exhibition the 1933 San Francisco World’s Fair on Treasure Island (the year the Lone Ranger made his radio debut) comes to life to explain the true story of Tonto and the Lone Ranger to a young boy in cowboy suit and black mask.
It doesn’t work at all but serves as a wink and nod to the audience that none of this is true — only some parts of it such as the genocide and greed are.
What a mixed message! And wrapped up in a summer tentpole that wants to act like a runaway train of jokes and merriment.
Audiences today can look back at Westerns as varied as early ones such as “The Vanishing American” and “The Iron Horse” to the later John Ford and Howard Hawks pictures and see a genuine expression of 20th-century visions of America. What will people 50 or 100 years from now make of “The Lone Ranger?”
Opens: July 3, 2013 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production: Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Blind Wink, Infinitum Nihil
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper, Bryant Prince, Mason Cook, JD Cullum, Saginaw Grant, Harry Treadway, James Frain
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriters and screen story: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski
Executive producers: Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Johnny Depp, Eric Ellenbogen, Eric McLeod
Director of photography: Bojan Bazelli
Production designers: Jess Gonchor, Crash McCreery
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Penny Rose
Visual effects supervisors: Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich
Editors: Craig Wood, James Haygood
PG-13 rating, 149 minutes