The most fascinating bad movie of the summer, The Lone Ranger is out to do far more than simply revive the character created as part of a radio serial in 1933. This blockbuster aims to acknowledge the genocide of Native Americans upon which our nation’s prosperity was built and also upend the Native American stereotypes that were perpetuated by the Lone Ranger radio show, novels, comic books, films, and TV shows. It wants to do this and yet still remain a rip-snorting Western adventure yarn. Accomplishing all this would be a fantastic achievement. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here aren’t nearly up to it.
The bulk of the story takes place in post-Civil War Texas, where an outlaw named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, with a scar curling his lip into a permanent sneer) brings our heroes together. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a prosecuting attorney who wants justice after Cavendish lures a bunch of Texas Rangers — including Reid’s brother (James Badge Dale) — into a fatal ambush. Reid himself is left for dead by the attack, but he’s rescued by Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Comanche warrior who believes that Cavendish is a wendigo responsible for the massacre of his community. Tonto convinces Reid to operate as a masked do-gooder: “People think you are dead. Better you stay that way.”
This is the latest chapter in the strange career of director Gore Verbinski. On one hand, he has made some commendable stuff: the faithful Japanese horror transplant The Ring, the underrated drama The Weather Man, and the borderline-genius animated Western Rango. On the other, he also inflicted the Pirates of the Caribbean series on us. Since the writers of that series, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, are also on board with The Lone Ranger, that’s not an encouraging sign. They pad out the movie’s 149-minute running time with a useless subplot about a one-legged whorehouse madam (Helena Bonham Carter) and an equally unnecessary framing device with an aged Tonto narrating the events to a boy in San Francisco in 1933.
Still, it’s not the writing that goes wrong so much as it is the director’s tone. The movie shows us all manner of white American progress coming at the expense of people of color, including African-American freed slaves and Chinese railroad workers. Yet this material jars with Verbinski’s penchant for silly gags and acid-trippy interludes. A doomed assault on the U.S. Army by Tonto’s fellow Comanche is intercut with Tonto and the Ranger making a farcical escape on a railroad handcar and punctuated with the sight of the horse that has yet to be named Silver up in a tree branch. Touches like these ruin the elegiac tone that the movie’s trying to strike. Quentin Tarantino successfully incorporated comedy and trenchant historical commentary in his Western Django Unchained, but this movie’s failure illustrates just how difficult a job that is. Actually, forget that movie. The Lone Ranger’s treatment of the oppression of Native Americans isn’t even as subtle or powerful as the Twilight series’ handling of that subject. Ouch!
Not everything is a disaster here. Depp plays reasonably well off Hammer, a big, strapping, handsome guy who’s as comfortable with broad slapstick clowning as he is with sophisticated verbal wordplay. (He could be this generation’s Brendan Fraser.) There’s also a nimble, complicated climactic chase involving two trains on different tracks that’s heavily influenced by Buster Keaton’s 1927 classic The General. At one point, Tonto stretches a ladder between the trains and calmly crosses over a split-second before a passing tree smashes the ladder into splinters, and the moment is done with a grace that would have done Keaton proud.
These things make The Lone Ranger easier to sit through than any of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, but they can’t keep the movie from being a mess that spills its laudable ideas willy-nilly all over its canvas. I hate to take down a movie for being too ambitious, but it would have been much better off if Verbinski and company had put their larger ideas aside and concentrated on making this work as a piece of entertainment. Then the Indian tracker and his masked kemosabe might look like heroes of our time.
The Lone Ranger
Starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio. Rated PG-13.