Posted by: Trey | 07/03/2013

“Justice is what I seek, Kemosabe.”

The Lone Range(2013)

lone-ranger-johnny-depp-poster

Let’s just get this out of the way first: The Lone Ranger does not suck. It’s not a bad movie, and it certainly doesn’t ruin the character (Hell, if the 1981 Legend of the Lone Ranger didn’t ruin the character, then nothing will). The film certainly has its flaws, and I will address those, but even with those problems it is a fun movie.

For the most part, The Lone Ranger sticks pretty close to the origin of the character as depicted in prior adaptations. Of course, every version has made some modifications, and this new film is no different. Yet underneath the Bruckheimer/Verbinski gloss the core plot – “lone survivor of an ambush dons a mask to seek justice” – remains. This being a contemporary movie featuring a masked hero, this origin is drawn out more than is really necessary. I would have liked to see more of the established Lone Ranger and less of the set-up & transition. But the same could be said for virtually every superhero movie of the last eight years.

As with many post-classical Westerns (and if the horses and hats hadn’t clued you in, yes this is a Western), The Lone Ranger highlights the conflict between civilization and wilderness. In spite of the big budget and pulp hero elements, the film hews pretty closely to what you would expect in a Western: ambivalence toward the railroad as symbol of progress, border disputes between settlers and Native Americans, etc. The Lone Ranger, caught in the middle of these elements, must figure out where – and if – justice fits in. The film attempts to go a more revisionist route in its approach to the Western, and admittedly the results are mixed. To its credit, the Lone Ranger does not end up fighting any sort of Native American threat – but then, it was also a cardinal rule of the original Lone Ranger show that he never fight Native Americans. Also, part of this revisionist bent is to bring Tonto front and center, which has the unfortunate effect at times of pushing the title character to the sidelines (shades of The Green Hornet (2011)?). While I think Tonto as a character could be made more than just the sidekick (actually I would argue that in most adaptations he already was more than that), the way this film handled the character was perhaps the biggest disappointment (more on that later).

Armie Hammer was born to play a masked hero, and I can totally see why he almost played Batman. In fact, I think I would still like to see that happen. He has the look, the voice, and does a pretty good job of juggling the film’s admittedly awkward blend of serious action and humor. If anything, he’s better than the script, and even in those inconsistent moments, he holds the film together. And in the scenes where he really gets to embrace the Lone Ranger iconography full-on? As a Lone Ranger fan it gave me chills.

William Fichtner is a deliciously evil Butch Cavendish, a character pulled directly out of the Lone Ranger’s 80-year history (albeit with some grotesque twists). There isn’t too much to be said about him, other than it’s another solid character piece from Fichtner – an actor I will watch in pretty much anything. Other supporting roles include Tom Wilkinson as a railroad tycoon, Barry Pepper as a cavalry captain and James Badge Dale as John Reid’s brother Dan, and they all deliver good performances. There are only two notable female roles in the film: Dan’s wife Rebecca, played by Ruth Wilson, and Red, a one-legged prostitute played by Helena Bonham Carter (who at this point must be contractually obligated to feature in every Johnny Depp movie). Sadly, neither is really given much to do – although I think a version of this story could have. Rebecca Reid spends most of the movie little more than the sort of damsel in distress found in Westerns when The Lone Ranger was a new character. Red simply serves no narrative purpose – although I get the impression that in earlier drafts or cuts she might have. As it stands, she could be totally removed from the film and I don’t think it would affect the plot at all.

And then there was Tonto. Johnny Depp is probably the last actor I would have selected to play the role. Depp’s take on the character is essentially a blend of the traditional Tonto speech patterns with the sort of character quirks and slapstick for which he has become (in)famous in recent years. Unfortunately, there are times when the effect of this is to distract from the title character, and even from the plot itself. Perhaps more problematic than the performance, however, is the decision to introduce a frame narrative which not only bookends the film, but occasionally interrupts as well. I think I get what the filmmakers were going for in terms of presenting it as a story that is to be told and retold as myth or legend, but the actual result is to make the film literally Tonto’s story. Also, there are specific moments where Tonto totally undermines classic, iconic Lone Ranger moments. I don’t know if they were in the script, or if it they were the result of Depp ad-libs, but for a fan they weren’t especially funny. This is not to say that this version of Tonto is all bad. The backstory he is given is compelling, and perhaps with a subtler performance could have taken the character to some interesting places. At one point there were rumors that Tonto would be a kind of shaman, and that there would be supernatural elements to the film (skinwalkers and such). Thankfully this was not the case, although there are some remnants of those elements in the final product.

As I said, the movie takes its time getting to a point where John Reid actually is the Lone Ranger. The film clocks in at around 2 and a half hours, and probably could have been at least 30 minutes shorter (eliminating the frame narrative and some of the Tonto gags, as well as streamlining the actual origin stuff, would pretty much achieve this, I think). Because he spends most of the movie “becoming” the Lone Ranger, he ends up breaking some of the Ranger’s rules. Traditionally, the Lone Ranger does not kill – yet in the course of the movie he ends up responsible for several deaths. In some ways this skirts the same technicality that Nolan’s Batman Begins fell back on – “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” It’s troubling, but I don’t think in either case it kills the movie. Also, the Lone Ranger should never be seen without his mask or a disguise. Without going into details, The Lone Ranger, (along with every other contemporary superhero movie) has him removing his mask in a key scene. Again, the argument could be made that he is still “becoming” the Ranger…but it’s a thing that every superhero movie does and it just doesn’t work. 

It sounds like I’m being pretty harsh on the movie, but I do want to emphasize that in spite of its flaws it is still fun. In the grand tradition of pulp heroes, this film works as popcorn entertainment. When the William Tell Overture cues up and the Lone Ranger rides in, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment. Don’t go in expecting The Dark Knight, or even Iron Man – it’s not that kind of movie. It may be a mixed bag, but taken for what it is there is still a lot to like about The Lone Ranger.

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Responses

  1. Have you read O’Hehir’s piece on the movie, and if so what did you think?

    http://www.salon.com/2013/07/02/the_lone_ranger_rip_roaring_adventure_meets_dark_political_parable/

    • I have not – but as soon as I get a break I will.

    • Okay – quick takeaways:
      I agree with the review insofar as I think its approach to the genre IS interesting & worth discussing. However, I still think Depp is a liability (not because of any cultural/racial insensitivity, but because his brand of humor clashes with the rest of the film’s tone…and I don’t quite buy that the clash is intentional). Also, I have to disagree with the suggestion that Reid is a boring character. He’s actually pretty interesting, fun, & compelling when he isn’t being used as a punchline by Depp’s Tonto.


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