A modern, big-budget version of “The Lone Ranger” starring Johnny Depp was always a strange proposition. The property had long been dormant, even though the name still carries recognition. Johnny Depp is also not the first person you’d think of to play a Native American, either, in spite of his questionable claims of Cherokee heritage. Then production woes set in, with major budget revisions and release date shuffling.
And indeed, the resulting film is strange. For a big budget spectacle movie, it’s quirky, long and offbeat. The titular character is more of a punching bag for jokes than an actual hero, the villains are outright old-timey mustache twirlers, and the sidekick is the star of the show.
Yet it’s certainly not without its charms and entertainment value. Patient viewers (and those that latch on to Depp’s odd, humorous Tonto) will be rewarded with a funny, fun summer action film.
In 1869, lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is returning to his Texas home via train. Unbeknownst to him, the train is carrying a notorious outlaw named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to his hanging. When Cavendish’s gang attacks the train in order to break him out, Reid gets caught in a fight to prevent his escape. Helping him is a native American prisoner named Tonto (Johnny Depp), who was also being transported on the train. The two are unable to prevent Cavendish’s escape, but they do manage to save the lives of everyone on board.
Reid’s brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a Texas Ranger, and when he forms a posse to recapture Cavendish afterwards, Reid goes along. Tragedy awaits, though, as the search party has a traitor in their midst and everyone who sets out is gunned down. Reid, however, survives, and finds himself reunited with Tonto upon awakening. Tonto also then introduces him to the super-intelligent horse, Silver, whom Tonto claims has identified Reid as a “Spirit Walker”: a person who has returned from the dead.
Reid is lucky to be alive, but determined to exact revenge for his brother’s killing. Tonto has his own cross to bear that aligns his interests with Reid’s. Insisting that Reid wear a mask in order to conceal his identity (he’s currently presumed dead), the two set off to find Cavendish and bring him to justice once and for all.
Which is really only a jumping off point for what becomes a long, complicated plot involving silver mines, the cross-country railroad and the battle against the Comanche; one of the film’s major issues is its sprawl. There are numerous plot strands, multiple villains, and dual leads. It runs nearly two and a half hours with major action bookends and sparse action in between. Story and character interplay fill between. Tonto is given significant development/motivation via flashback, and the Lone Ranger also needs to protect the family of his slain brother. Helena Bonham Carter and Barry Pepper both have side characters that appear in support of the heroes and villains, respectively. Finally, the entire film is “told” by an old Tonto to a young boy via flashback from a carnival in the early 1900s. It’s a device that adds to the runtime, and took a lot of getting used to, but did pay off in the end for me.
Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger is a curious lead character. He’s idealistic, naïve, and clumsy. Frankly, at times he borders on the buffoonish. It’s an odd way to handle the character who ostensibly should be the focus of the film. The villains aren’t particularly well crafted, either. Fichtner’s Cavendish wears a scarred perma-sneer to accentuate his badness, and Tom Wilkinson’s railroad tycoon Latham Cole is so patently “Evil Robber Baron” that I don’t even consider it a spoiler to tell you he’s a villain in spite of the reveal not coming til late in the film.
And yet, in spite of all this, I found myself enjoying the film, primarily due to the combination of Depp and director Gore Verbinski.
Depp’s Tonto is one of the oddest, funniest characters you could ask for. With his mud cracked makeup and the dead raven he wears as a headdress, he’s visually strange. He’s also idiosyncratic; he insists on “feeding” the dead bird, has odd physical mannerisms, and frequently seems spacey… as if he took too much peyote as a young brave. Yet, he’s hysterically on top of Hammer’s Ranger, pointing out obvious ironies and oddities with cutting, deadpan comments. If brevity is the soul of wit, Tonto is one of the wisest characters to see the big screen in many years. He’s the main character of the film, and wisely so. He’s BY FAR the most interesting. In my opinion, Depp here has crafted a comic action character that nearly (note I said nearly) rivals his famous Captain Jack Sparrow. I can clearly see now why he wanted to take on this role.
With Depp’s Tonto keeping the film funny between action set pieces, Verbinski crafts a couple of beauties to open and close the film. While he should take criticism for the movie’s bloat and some of the lacking character work, he needs to be given credit for creating a couple of highly entertaining blockbuster set pieces, both of which revolve around trains heading towards certain doom, and characters running, riding, and jumping in, on and off of them. Both of which may go on a tad too long (leaving them vulnerable to accusations of overkill), but they undeniably will sate the modern audience’s need for fast paced action with cleverly inserted humor beats.
“The Lone Ranger” is certainly not your typical current action film. It has a unique, stoically humorous tone which may alienate some viewers, but endear others. It also (like TOO MANY of today’s films) suffers from “Epic-itis”, with a formidable runtime and a lot of fat on the story. Yet Depp’s remarkable Tonto and Verbinski’s big budget action set pieces save the day, making “The Lone Ranger” a film well worth watching.