The Lone Ranger is deathly dull, which is quite a shame as it not only has a decent conceit for a Western, but also has an obvious appreciation for the history of the Western and films in general. The main problem arises in the tonal imbalance resulting in a bloated effort that wants to not only play in the sandbox of history, but also satisfy modern day audiences with massive set pieces, explosions and misfired attempts at comedy.
Director Gore Verbinski showed a strong love of Westerns with his 2011 animated feature Rango and its no surprise he shows a similar affinity here, though much of his focus is on the work of Buster Keaton in the 1926 silent classic The General. Unfortunately, when you mix the comedy of a silent classic with the bombast of today’s blockbusters, shot in the same tonal wackiness of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, you end up with a tone deaf movie that doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going.
Verbinski has tackled Lone Ranger with the exact same blockbuster aspirations he did the Pirates franchise, but there’s a big difference between the pacing of a high seas adventure story and the dirt road of the Old West. The blood of a cinephile runs through Verbinski’s veins and as much as I appreciate his attempt to homage the past in a modern day blockbuster, the result here is like giving A-positive to a B-negative patient.
Obviously few of today’s audience members are likely to remember the late ’40s/early ’50s television show based on the 1933 radio show that spawned the titular character. I actually grew up watching some of the old “Lone Ranger” episodes in the early ’80s, but even I don’t remember anything about it other than the fact it was in black-and-white and I liked it. So to play heavily on the nostalgia of the character would be a waste and with Depp cast as the masked hero’s Native American sidekick Tonto, the film hardly has much of a Lone Ranger bend to it at all.
The decision to cast Armie Hammer in the role of John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger) made it obvious the filmmakers were going to place Depp’s Tonto front and center as Disney wasn’t going to gamble a $200+ million budgeted Western on the back of an actor the audience hardly knew from his supporting roles in The Social Network and J. Edgar. So now your title character has been pushed to the supporting role and you’re paying homage to a silent, 1926 comedy with Depp channeling Captain Jack Sparrow, feeding the dead crow on his head. Yeah, this should work.
Clocking in at one minute under two-and-one-half-hours, about 15 minutes of that time are wasted on a 100+ year-old Tonto, now a 1933 (get the correlation?) carnival stand-in representing the Native American of the late 1800s, telling his story to a young child dressed as the Lone Ranger. From there we’re whisked back to Colby, Texas 1869 and the story of how John Reid (Hammer) went from being a big city attorney to a Wild West outlaw ranger.
A lot of the story is just a matter of going through the motions, loved ones must die and others captured. Tortured pasts must come into the picture and the true villain must reveal his face. The PG-13 rating results in a wasted Helena Bonham Carter and her wooden leg doubling as a shotgun and William Fichtner‘s cannibalistic villainy. Then there’s Barry Pepper as cavalry Captain J. Fuller, a character so clouded and ill-conceived he seems like a stand-in for the movie itself.
Reid and Tonto gallop around the dusty West, blowing up bridges and performing feats of amazing derring-do and it amounts to one of the most boring, soulless blockbuster experiences of the year. Everything felt so by-the-numbers, not a single set piece came as a surprise and not a single character seemed organic to the story as much as they felt like chess pieces moved with exacting precision.
If there is a Blockbuster 101 course taught at any film school The Lone Ranger would probably serve as the perfect test case, urging young filmmakers to pay homage to the films of the past, but to never deviate from the formula audiences of today have come to expect. Go off course and risk losing the millions the studio is willing to put up to fund your big budget lunchbox and action figure commercial. What a waste.