Silver Screen: The Lone Ranger ***
For pseudo-spiritual hokum garnishing a thoroughly capitalist enterprise, check out Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a movie that seems born not of inspiration but inevitability. If there’s still a pre-existing property with some level of name recognition out there, Disney will find it and remake it, and by God (or Spirits) you’d better bet they’ll put Johnny Depp in it.
Depp stars as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto, a name that means “fool” in Spanish. A white guy playing a Native American whose name is “idiot” might seem like the wrong foot to start off on, culturally speaking, but such is Disney’s desire to see Depp’s quirky take on Tonto that they write an entire movie around it. An agonizing frame story features a much older Tonto recounting his adventures to a young boy in a museum, and it only seems to exist for the studio to constantly reiterate how they’re very aware the Native Americans got big-time screwed. That point is reiterated several times during the movie’s meandering plot, which features not one but two scenes of Native Americans being massacred by whites. These somber sequences are spliced between Depp’s exploits as a trash-talking spirit guide with a dead bird on his head and a penchant for slapstick hijinks, as the movie veers between goofball irreverence and sober, funereal respect.
Though overstuffed and wildly inconsistent, all the trappings for a suitably silly blockbuster are here. Depp’s Tonto first meets his future partner, do-gooder attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer), during a thrilling train robbery. It’s a zippy, brilliantly choreographed scene, with Tonto reluctantly pitching in to help the struggling lawmen as bandits storm the locomotive to free dastardly gang leader Butch Cavendish (an excellent William Fichtner).
Reid joins up with his far more capable brother Dan (James Badge Dale) to track down the escaped outlaw, but the posse is ambushed, Dan is killed, and John is left for dead. Tonto saves him, and the two set out to bring Cavendish to justice. Since everyone thinks John is dead, he keeps his identity secret by donning the famous black mask and riding under the name the Lone Ranger.
The trouble with Verbinski’s Lone Ranger isn’t anything mentioned above, it’s everything else-- a mess of extraneous plot threads, superfluous characters, and protracted action scenes that bloat the movie to the two-and-a-half-hour mark. A romantic subplot involving John and his dead brother’s sexy widow (Ruth Wilson) is expected if unnecessary, but there’s no excuse for Helena Bonham Carter’s goofy one-legged brothel owner whose ivory prosthetic hides a double-barreled shotgun, or Barry Pepper’s useless Indian-killing cavalry leader. References abound to “nature being out of balance,” which causes animals, most notably a group of fanged, bloodthirsty rabbits, to behave in inexplicable ways. That’s presumably an ablated storyline from an earlier draft of the screenplay, which was said to have significant supernatural elements, but even though that whole notion was abandoned, a handful of those sequences remain confusingly intact and are never explained.
When Verbinski does mount a big action sequence, though, he does it with grace. When the bugle sounds The William Tell Overture and the Lone Ranger rides his white horse Silver across rooftops and onto a train for the final setpiece, it’s one-hundred percent pure popcorn-movie thrills. Verbinski captures motion and chaos without succumbing to it. The scale is huge, the views are sweeping panoramas, and a decent amount of the derring-do comes from real stunts and practical effects rather than computer-generated imagery or green screens, and when the digital technology is used it’s well integrated.
Hammer may play the title character, but he’s more Tonto’s sidekick than the other way around. Depp’s Tonto is funny and engaging but familiar-- it’s a slightly more straightfaced version of the Jack Sparrow character, which is itself a derivation of the cartoon version of himself that Depp has been crafting for more than a decade going back to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Call him Hunter S. Tonto.
But how do you square that character with the movie’s intense white guilt over the treatment of Native Americans? The short answer is, you don’t. Maybe Depp and company should have had one more consulting session with the great Spirits. They probably would have advised against setting a slapstick summertime adventure against a backdrop of genocide.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.