Disney’s The Lone Ranger rides into cinemas everywhere this weekend bringing a updated take on the classic TV show masked avenger to modern audiences. The film is a success and a failure to varying degrees. How much you feel of one or the other probably depends on your ability to just let go and have a good time. Although dark at times, the film isn’t meant to be taken too seriously and certainly pokes fun at some of the conventions we expect in a Lone Ranger story. Once you figure out who the villain is, and he reveals himself fairly early on, the pieces fall into place and the rest of the film is a can be enjoyed for what it is – well produced Hollywood fun.
Like Johnny Depp, I grew up watching reruns of the classic TV show edition of The Lone Ranger. The villains were inevitably corrupt businessmen and politicians or the standard mustache twirling dreamer up of evil plots. Tonto did his best to keep the outlaw lawman John Reid out of trouble and often swooped in for a well timed attack to save the masked avenger’s life. It was inspiring stuff to an 8 year old.
Sadly, I can’t recommend today’s 8-year olds watch this new edition of The Lone Ranger. The PG-13 rating is to be taken seriously for both violent scenes and fairly heavy subject matter.
Frankly, I don’t get why Disney is marketing The Lone Ranger to young kids with Halloween costumes, action figures, and the like. Was the part about cutting out and eating the still beating heart of one of the heroes not in the script when merchandise got their hands on it?
On the other hand, I recent sat through World War Z, a fairly graphic and bloody zombie attack movie, with a young kid right in front of me. He suffered no ill effect and was even suggesting dinner options on the way out of the theater (he must have had an iron stomach to go with his tolerance for horror and gore). But I digress.
Ostensibly about the journey John Reid takes to become The Lone Ranger, the movie actually dedicates more pages of the script to Tonto’s backstory. It makes sense since a large portion of the plot is driven by elements in Tonto’s life. The two start off as adversaries, but by the end of the film are ready to work together as a team to right the wrongs and bring the bad guys to justice.
The movie is divided into three very distinct parts. The first part where you meet John Reid and his brother’s family, the outlaws, and Tonto plays just like a John Ford western down to the filming which is set in the shadow of Monument Valley, AZ (which stands in for Texas in the film, of course). The second part is a buddy film where the characters of John Reid and Tonto develop their rapport through one hardship or another. The final third is pretty much a direct homage to the original TV series and includes one of the best (by which I mean most delightfully implausible suspend your disbelief) action scenes to hit the movies in the last few years. In keeping with these different film traditions, violence is handled differently in each section. For the old western, the violence is raw, gory and brutal. The middle third plays exactly like out of a Lethal Weapon film, while the last section features almost cartoony violence where a room gets shot to pieces and yet no one dies or even blinks as a horse rides through the middle of a a train car full of people with bullets flying everywhere (also do these guns ever run out of bullets?).
The movie reunites Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Director Gore Verbinski, and the writers from the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. You’ll recognize many characters and scenes that the team pulls from their usual bag of tricks. Thankfully one of those tricks is funny dialogue and a large dose of good old fashioned adventure movie fun. Thankfully the humor is not over the top (although it does take a few digs are the TV show), and some of it comes at the expense of Native American’s via Depp’s character.
Let’s talk about Tonto. The film-making team really wanted to update the relationship between Tonto and The Lone Ranger. While Johnny Depp’s Tonto is a full partner in the crime fighting duo, he is a very broken man when you first meet him in the film. Only later on, when you encounter the remains of Tonto’s tribe do you see how far apart he is from other Native Americans. I like a character with complications and Tonto certainly has them. I also like how the payoff at by the end of the film. But I can see how some would feel offended by Depp’s portrayal of Tonto. I just don’t think they’ve seen the whole picture.
Armie Hammer brings a certain classic Hollywood heroic leading man appeal to John Reid. We actually learn very little of his backstory, the focus is on his transformation from lawyer to outlaw. Hammer doesn’t try to do too much, he mostly just has to sit up straight in the saddle, but for the few scenes where he’s required to give it his all, he really brings some star power to the screen.
While Depp’s established star power and Hammer’s growing star both shine through their roles, William Fichtner disappears into the villainous role of Butch Cavendish. I had to really look hard to prove to myself it was Fitchner in the role. He’s certainly played evil villains before, but never one was completely evil as Cavendish, definitely worth an acting award nomination or two. Also chewing through his role as railroad investor Latham Cole was brit Tom Wilkenson.
Clocking in at 2 and a half hours, the film is long, too long in fact. And yet, some of the supporting characters still don’t get the chance to shine. Helena Bonham Carter’s character Red, a brothel madame, has some meat on her and yet we never get to see her fleshed out (pardon the pun). Barry Pepper is excellent in the brief time he is on screen as the Calvary Captain and makes the best of a character whose motivations are never really understood. The widow of John Reid’s brother and her son serve only as convenient plot devices to be moved around the chess board to provoke an action here or a rescue there. That storyline could have been cut tightening up the film significantly (of course then there wouldn’t have been a love interest either).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the score by Hans Zimmer. He not only finds a way to put in elements of the William Tell Overture, he figures out how to include it in its entirety during the movie’s final exciting action sequence. Yes, it’s hokey, but by that point in the movie you’re ready for The Lone Ranger to do his thing and the traditional music fits well with the sense of adventure.
You’ve likely heard that The Lone Ranger is getting some bad reviews. I’ll admit that after the film finished, I too had some questions (a few of which I raised above). But none of them were show stoppers in terms of just enjoying a well directed piece with some excellent acting, exciting action sequences, and a sense of fun that is infectious. If the box office numbers defy reviewer predictions, then I predict a sequel in the not too distant future.
The Lone Ranger opens in theaters today. Will you go see it?