REVIEW: The Lone Ranger [2013]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 149 minutes | Release Date: July 3rd, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Gore Verbinski
Writer(s): Justin Haythe & Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio

“A fairly sinister jar of pickles at the bar”

To sum up Disney’s big budget reboot of Fran Striker and George W. Trendle’s radio show turned television hit The Lone Ranger in one word conjures “silly”. It’s silly to read how Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s original script involved werewolves—John Reid’s outlaw does use silver bullets after all. It’s silly—and offensive—that the producers cast a movie star like Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto when so many Native American actors could have performed the role effectively. (And yes, the simple fact there was a whole to-do about Depp becoming an honorary adoptee of the Comanche tribe in May 2012 confirms Disney’s guilt.) But the silliest of all is that this film could be fun for youngsters looking for a white hat, Western hero substitute for Batman—and yet it’s PG-13.

We don’t have to look farther than its framing device to see the absurdity of this ratings decision on behalf of the filmmakers. Whether the work of the aforementioned screenwriting duo or a result of Justin Haythe’s rewrite, the idea to package this tale of adventure into the rambling memories of an ancient “Noble Savage” at a carnival museum is actually a well thought out nod to how the character touched so many children in 1933. There is a yearning to posit everything as a faith-based tale leaving old Tonto’s (Depp) words in flux as to whether history or fiction—making it up to young San Franciscan Will’s (Mason Cook) imagination and ours to believe or not. But why use an eleven-year old audience stand-in for a film only teens and older can watch?

The rating itself is deserved with an off-camera scalping, cannibalistic feeding, and complete and utter massacre of a race of people, but is any of it necessary when the film also includes the goofiest vampirically monsterized rabbits this side of Monty Python and the Holy Grail? There is so much stupid humor—even an 1869 “poop” joke courtesy of a horse and Armie Hammer’s heroic Ranger’s concussed head—and Depp’s Tonto is so broadly reactionary in his performance that Gore Verbinski didn’t need to also shoot such a realistic depiction of the American/Indian strife. One can’t help but be unable to reconcile the idiocy on display with the horrific imagery of main villain Butch Cavendish’s (William Fichtner) hair-lip and the rest of the film’s penchant for grotesquely graphic murders. Pirates were fun; genocide is not.

To me this is The Lone Ranger’s biggest problem. It wants so hard to equal the success of a franchise so many here helped create that it forgets how dramatically serious its subject matter is in comparison. This isn’t a cartoony swashbuckling epic with tons of humor and a cowardly mascot—it’s a morality tale depicting America’s lust for power and the complete destruction of judiciary rules and regulations inside a new Wild West. It’s about vengeance and justice for a Comanche outcast and a grieving lawyer fighting criminals who willfully set out to exterminate a “savage” population because they can. With so much talk about doing their best to honor Native American culture through authentic portrayals, it’s a shame Hollywood has seen fit to also murder them again for laughs and gravitas.

Too jokey for the imagery and too graphic for the tone, the film still finds a way to entertain through its bloated 149-minute runtime. Hammer is perfectly cast as the idealistic, pacifist turned vigilante; Depp’s expressive comedy is a riot and should provide ample laughs for audiences; and Fichtner is an ill-tempered cretin you’ll love to hate. Crossing paths often for complex effects-heavy sequences, we’re given at least three battles worthy of any other film’s climax. In a Jerry Bruckheimer film, however, they are mere points of plot progression to get your adrenaline pumping through the next lull. But even with all the action, each wind-down can’t help but increase our impatience for a resolution. We can only watch Hammer let Cavendish go so many times before hoping they both catch a bullet.

Set against the backdrop of America’s transcontinental railroad creation adds political greed of a two-faced Tom Wilkinson, the patriotic heroism of head Ranger—and John Reid’s older brother—Dan (James Badge Dale), and a bloodthirsty military with automatic weaponry captained by Barry Pepper. Gil Birmingham and Saginaw Grant add some authentic Native American flavor; Helena Bonham Carter a completely unnecessary one-legged brothel owner; and the wasted brilliance of Ruth Wilson brings a wasted damsel in distress. They and many other familiar faces come and go until a final high-speed train chase set to the William Tell Overture sends the implausible action to its apex. It’s a riveting sequence with seven characters caught between two locomotives trying their best to kill, escape, and survive with a ton of physical comedy, CGI mayhem, and spirit-walker antics.

Cut out one major conflict, trim another down to scale, and excise a few of the “are they good guys or bad guys” roles and The Lone Ranger could have rekindled the magic it held in the 30s and 50s. As it is now it’s merely another overblown actioner that doesn’t know what audience to target while showing how its writers, director, producer, and star can do the same thing they’ve done three times before—well, three and a half if you count the Verbinski-less On Stranger Tides. Ficthner and Wilkinson give memorable turns while Depp provides fun if you can look beyond the controversial casting. But in the end, the excess of a film that will ultimately be forgotten overshadows the coming out party for Hammer and to a lesser extent Wilson.

[1] Armie Hammer stars as John Reid/The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp stars as Tonto in Walt Disney Pictures’ The Lone Ranger (2013)
[2] William Fichtner stars as Butch Cavendish in Walt Disney Pictures’ The Lone Ranger (2013)
[3] A scene from Walt Disney Pictures’ The Lone Ranger (2013)

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