By the time the William Tell Overture kicks in during the big climactic action sequence, Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger had just about won me over. That’s no small feat given the previous two hours of the film, which have major story and pacing issues and survive mostly via droll comedy, obscure references, and general weirdness.
In other words, it’s a western variation of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which is no surprise given the studio and team behind it: Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer producing, Verbinski directing, and Johnny Depp (as Tonto) in a supporting role so over-the-top strange he threatens to overtake the movie. It may be my fondness for the genre, but I enjoyed this a little more than the Pirates films, with the possible exception of some of the more out-there stuff in Dead Man’s Chest.
Indeed, Depp’s Tonto is the iconic image in the film: his face painted white with black stripes and a dead crow mounted atop his head (inspired by Kirby Sattler’s painting I Am Crow), the character is magnetic whenever onscreen, and overtakes the iconic but familiar appearance of the Ranger. But unlike the wildly flamboyant Jack Sparrow, Depp completely underplays the role; his Buster Keaton-esque deadpan reactions result in some of the film’s best gags.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s actually the Lone Ranger who manages to wrestle his own film away from Depp. Armie Hammer (in his first big starring role, after portraying the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) makes for an agreeably genteel lead; his goofy, good-natured charm recalls something like Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent, and results in a perfect reluctant hero, the kind of protagonist they just don’t make any more.
At the very least, he’s a far stronger presence than either Orlando Bloom or Kiera Knightley in the Pirates films, and the best Lone Ranger since Clayton Moore (not that there’s been much competition, apologies to Klinton Spilsbury).
Opening in 1933 San Francisco, Ranger is narrated via flashback by Depp’s Tonto (in some of the better old-age makeup I’ve seen), telling his story to a young masked boy at an Old West exhibit. It’s the first of many, many subplots, story threads, and general asides that could have been excised to make this bloated 2.5-hour flick a rollicking 100-minute adventure.
He jumps right into the story, with the Lone Ranger and Tonto leaping into action. The familiar William Tell Overture builds on the soundtrack, and then, just as it reaches the crescendo…it stops dead in its tracks. No, there’s nearly two hours of lumbering weirdness to follow before the film finally pays off on that promise (but stick with it, and pay off it does…)
Story-wise, the film sticks to a more-or-less familiar version of the Lone Ranger origin. Hammer is John Reid, a big city lawyer who joins a posse lead by his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), under orders from railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), to bring outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to justice.
After the posse is ambushed and Reid left for dead, the mystical Tonto nurses him back to health, urged by a familiar white horse he takes for a ‘spirit guide’. Back from the grave, empowered by Tonto’s insistence that he’s a ‘spirit walker’ who cannot be killed, Reid becomes the Lone Ranger and the duo join forces to seek revenge on Cavendish – each for their own reasons.
That’s a pretty simple setup that would’ve made for a nifty revenge western, and the film plays out well-enough when it sticks to the get-Cavendish plot. But the film goes off on so many weird asides – including those with an ivory leg-adorned madam played by Helena Bonham Carter and a cavalry officer played by Barry Pepper – that what should have been a quick, clean adventure suddenly has an extra hour of fat. By the time the film gets to Tonto’s convoluted back story, Native American genocide, and immigrant workers, it has bitten off far more than it can chew.
The weirdness can’t save The Lone Ranger’s bloated midsection (though in this age of by-the-numbers blockbusters, I more than appreciated something different), but its sheer love for genre filmmaking comes close; images and themes are cribbed directly from films as diverse as El Topo, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Searchers, Dead Man, and even Verbinski’s animated Rango. If this film isn’t entertaining us (and too frequently, it isn’t), it’s doing a swell job of reminding us of better times at the cinema.
But then, two hours into the film, the William Tell Overture finally kicks back in for a dynamite train chase sequence straight out of Buster Keaton’s The General, and for a good fifteen minutes a smile was plastered across my face from ear to ear. I don’t know if that’s enough for most audiences to forgive the rest of the film (and the critics certainly haven’t), but after watching so many blockbusters implode at the big finale, here’s one that finally gets it right.
It also ends on the perfect gag. “Hi-ho, Silver!”