THE LONE RANGER (Three Stars)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2013
I. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…
Who was that masked man — the one riding through the multiplexes on a white horse named Silver with Rossini‘s “William Tell Overture“ crashing behind him? Part of a classic TV tribute? A campy send-up? A revisionist history lesson? A genre-bending Western? A slapstick action movie? A formula would-be blockbuster? Or a bit of all of them: a Lone Ranger in search of its identity, trying to yell out a hearty “Hi Yo-Silver!“ but hidden behind a mask of conventional big-budget movie-making?
There are about one or two good pictures buried inside Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which stars Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger, and is actually long enough (149 minutes) to have several extracted from it. The movie, some of which I liked, could definitely use a trim, and this time, I wish they‘d done it. I also wish that the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer), producer-director (Verbinski) and writers (Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio), hadn’t tried to go revisionist at times.
I don’t have any problems with Depp and the writers trying to interpret Tonto in a way that tries to be fairer to Native Americans, who, after all, had a country stolen from them. But perhaps the movie should have celebrated (in a hip way of course) more of the original radio/TV hero’s “naïve“ virtues — such as social conscience and the passion for justice that The Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto displayed for 21 years (1933-54) in their radio incarnation, a few more on TV (1949-57) and that Depp and Hammer at first seem perfectly capable of supplying here.
Instead , the new movie goes riding off in all directions. Sometimes it’s darkly funny, sometimes it’s would-be poignant and elegiac, sometimes it’s traditionalist and legend-happy, sometimes (as in the runaway train climax) it’s a hellacious slambanger of mostly non-CGI-generated action scenes. And though mixing moods and genres and styles can be provocative and fun, this movie and its makers never seem sure enough of its tone and its targets to navigate smoothly from one to another. There are good things in this Lone Ranger, but it tends to lose your attention — or overwhelm it — in the last hour or so.
The movie begins with a bang — lots of them, in fact. It’s a roaring recreation and an origin tale, some of which it will be familiar to anyone with a wee bit of Lone Ranger-lore tucked inside their noggin. The Ranger, whom we first meet under his real name of John Reid, is a non-gun-packing lawman and John Locke admirer, speeding West on a train carrying two chained prisoners in a box-car: the fiendish Butch Cavendish (played with blood-chilling hard-core villainy by William Fichtner) and the taciturn, ever-watchful Tonto (played with playfulness and style by Depp). But the train shoots past its stop, and Butch’s gang explodes down, guns blazing, to set their boss free, leaving John and Tonto shackled together briefly — until Tonto escapes and John and his brother, the more practical, gun-packing lawman Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), take off after the Gang in a posse.
What follows is the famous ambush by the Cavendish Gang of the eight man Texas Ranger posse pursuing them, leaving six dead, one dying (Dan, whose heart will be ripped from his chest and eaten by the maniacal Butch) — and John himself lying there to be rescued by murder witness Tonto, who is rightly impressed by his new friend’s mojo with the spirit world.
Quick as you can say “Mmmm Kemo Sabe,“ a legend is born. John is eventually given a mask, dubbed The Lone Ranger and sets off with Faithful Companion Tonto to capture and punish the heartless Butch. There are other problems to solve as well: the bereavement and grief of Dan’s widow Rebecca (played by Olivier Prize-winning British stage actress Ruth Wilson) and pugnacious son, There’s the overconfident and sneaky-looking tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who is after Rebecca and is also preparing to complete his Railroad and take over everything. There’s the local Madame, lusty Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter) who has the salty temperament, if not the hot temper, of Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, and also the damnedest, most memorable wooden leg, this side of Buñuel’s Tristana.
Finally, there’s Tonto’s Comanche tribe (who remind Faithful Tonto of a terrible secret), led by Chief Big Bear (played by the estimable Saginaw Grant), mistreated by law and outlaw alike. All of this, which supposedly took place in 1869, is told to a small boy wearing a Lone Ranger mask (Mason Cook), in San Francisco in 1933 (the first year on radio for the Ranger), by an old Indian who walks out of one of the Old West museum exhibits and tells the whole story — right up to the wild and pulse-pummeling climax, which plays like a madly inflated expansion of Buster Keaton’s classic train chase in The General, and is scored (at last!) to the Ranger’s famous theme song, the propulsive and exciting “William Tell Overture” of Gioachino Rossini – all of which is calculated to tear up the screen..
That it does. And perhaps even more impressively, it does it without the aid, or over-aid, of CGI, with real trains really racing along and some of the actors doing their own stunt work. Whatever you can complain about in The Lone Ranger — and you can complain about quite a lot — it’s definitely a terrific-looking movie. Not counting Verbinski’s animated Sergio Leone parody Rango, it’s probably the best-looking big studio Western since the heyday of Peckinpah, Penn and Leone. Those Wild West artists are all influences on the film’s often amazing images — along with the unexpendable head movie Western master of them all, John Ford. There is, of course, a scene or two (or more) shot in Ford‘s legendary Utah location Monument Valley (which he used regularly and unforgettably from 1939’s Stagecoach to 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn). The old valley still looks as monumental as ever — and Ford’s favorite hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?” also present, sounds just as good.
Of course none of those Western pros would have gone anywhere near a Lone Ranger movie in their day — even though the major influences here include their work: Ford’s The Searchers, Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, Penn’s Little Big Man, and Peckinpah in general. Each of those directors was, in his way, a realist trying to make Westerns more adult, just as Clint Eastwood was, and all of them would have probably scoffed at the idea of a $250 million Lone Ranger movie – based on a radio show largely aimed toward children.
It is an absurd project. But Depp and the others sometimes give it surprising, uh, depth. Depp’s Tonto, who has a crow on his head, paint on his face and a burr monotone in his voice, is a hero both amusing and charismatic.. It’s an interestingly low-key performance, not whimsical in Depp’s usual key: and it’s also a portrait of one of those movie Westerners, like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, doomed to “wander forever between the winds” — until he meets his faithful white man companion. It’s probably Depp’s most macho role, a strange description to apply to this often fey-acting actor, but one which he seems here to embrace. He’s not the best actor in the movie — Fichtner is, as the crazy Butch Cavendish — but he shows that he has more strings to his bow, and more arrows in his quiver, than we might have guessed.
The movie itself is grandiose and silly, but it’s done with a lot of affection for its subject. The new Lone Ranger may be miscalculated, too jam-packed and too damned much, but it’s not a cynical, totally mercenary project. There’s genuine feeling and even a political agenda: to make Tonto the real hero, and to make John Reid/The Lone Ranger a doofus in search of his heroism. So Tonto is completely at home in his frontier desert environment, while John is a lone idealist (somewhat reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), a fish out of water who’s naïve about the West and about evil, and has to be taught almost everything.
The approach almost works — except for the fact that, in this case, Hammer and Verbinski make the Ranger a little too much of a doofus, make it hard to believe he’ll ever be any good at his job. Then again, there are scenes where, mystifyingly, he’s suddenly a meanie. It’s a huge mistake, I thought, to have John seem to walk away from Tonto, when his Indian sometime pal is buried up to his neck in a patch of ground covered with scorpions. Like the little kid I once was would have said emphatically: He wouldn’t have done that! Not my masked man!
. III. Westerns
I love Westerns, and there are few movie trends I would like more than to see the genre revived and renewed. But the claim that the Western is a dead genre sometimes seems a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The pastoral lyricism and moral drama that were at the heart of the classic Westerns — John Ford’s movies and Anthony Mann’s and Peckinpah’s and Shane and High Noon – seems to run counter to what moviemakers want to show us these days. The old Western plots keep getting recycled, but they’re transplanted onto other planets or into modern or futuristic cities. They become “street westerns,” or “sci-fi Westerns” — and the loss of the lyricism, the “great scenery” that every Western fan once cited, can sometimes be disastrous.
I dislike a lot of the movies that have replaced Westerns, which include violent messes like A Good Day to Die Hard (which takes its title from a Western), just as I often yearn for the Westerns they’ve replaced. Isn’t it possible anymore for someone to make an inexpensive, beautiful little movie like Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now, or Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage or Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country? Do we always have to start with a hundred million (or more) budget and a body count that recalls Gettysburg?
Every once in a while in the last few years, a good Western, period or modern, pops up: Verbinski’s Rango, for example, or Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff or Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada , or the Coen brothers’ True Grit and their superb modern western (via Cormac McCarthy) No Country for Old Men. And it can remind us of how vital and alive and unfailingly popular the genre once was, how many movie classics it generated from the silent era on.
But those more recent pictures were mostly deliberately intended as art films for discerning audiences, made by filmmakers very aware of the Western as an American art form, and very aware (as Verbinski is) that Monument Valley is cinematic holy ground. The Lone Ranger, in contrast, is intended as a big-crowd pleasing sequel-spawning franchise picture– like Verbinski, Bruckheimer and Depp‘s Disney swashbuckler series Pirates of the Caribbean — and it‘ll probably blamed if the genre stays “dead.” (To be fair, we haven’t seen an avalanche of pirate movies recently either.) It’s somewhat embarrassing that the biggest-grossing Western of recent years is that addled science fiction hybrid, Cowboys and Aliens — a ridiculous movie whose script Ford or Peckinpah or Raoul Walsh probably would have used to start a campfire.
In the end though, it’s hard to make a realistic western that will draw big audiences or rally the critics in the post-Vietnam era, because the whole legend of American manifest destiny and the myth of the frontier, has been affected by the historical revisionism that took hold, understandably, afterwards. Yet there has always been strong sympathy in at least some of our movies directed toward Native Americans — dating back to early shorts like D. W. Griffith’s Ramona (1910), or silent features like George Seitz’s 1925 The Vanishing American — which was shot in Monument Valley, as was John Ford’s own revisionist Western, Cheyenne Autumn, the last movie he made there.
IV. Viva Rossini!
When the big train scene starts and the “William Tell Overture” came on — one of the most exciting and irresistibly propulsive pieces of music ever, and one irrevocably associated with the Lone Ranger and Tonto — I was almost ready to forgive the movie everything, as long as the music kept playing a while, and then played again over the credits.
But the orchestrators scrambled up Rossini with some Hans Zimmer interpolations (I guess), messing up that marvelous chain of exploding climaxes at the end. and then, when the credits started off with a snatch of the overture again, they quickly stopped it and went over to original music again. To top it all off, I couldn’t even find Rossini’s name in the credits list. How could the moviemakers be handed a magnificent gift like “The William Tell Overture” and break it off and mess it up?
The Lone Ranger isn’t quite as bad as most of the critics have cracked it up to be, though it’s overblown and wasteful in the modern bloated-epic tradition–overlong and miscalculated and over-reliant on its often brilliant and very expensive technique. Technique can carry you only so far, which is also true of money. But sometimes it’s better to have nostalgia and the great tradition of the movie western and a faithful companion. And “The William Tell Overture,” uncut.