THE LONE RANGER Review: Firing Silver Blanks
It’s time to test your movie knowledge! Which of the following are quintessentially American?
B) Buddy movies
C) The summer blockbuster
D) Pop culture and nostalgia
E) All of the above
If you chose “E) All of the above,” then go to the head of the class.
The western is the one film genre that is as close to being exclusively American as possible. Sure, there will always be exceptions in terms of filmmaking country of origin (such as Sergio Leone‘s Italian spaghetti westerns), but the western experience, and the genre that showcases that, is uniquely American. The buddy film has comedy roots that go back to the likes of Abbott and Costello in the ’30s, Martin and Lewis in the ’50s, and Pryor and Wilder in the ’70s, until American filmmakers of the 1980s added heaping amounts of action to the humor and perfected the formula with buddy cop films like 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon.
Thanks to a little blockbuster called Jaws (1975) and the subsequent juggernaut Star Wars (1977), summer moviegoing in the US has been about bigger, louder, and more expensive to make, and lives and dies that way now more than ever before. And as for nostalgia, I’ll be honest that I don’t know how other countries handle their memories from the past, but here is the US, there isn’t anything that an icon from Hollywood’s Golden Age CAN’T be associated with, from t-shirts to lunch boxes to full-blown cable channels. If you want yesterday, come to America today.
It was this confluence of American things … not to mention a release over the 4th of July weekend, yet another distinctly American event … that set up Gore Verbinski‘s The Lone Ranger to benefit from a star-spangled alignment like no other. Unfortunately, any American film must also be well-made in order to take advantage of such patriotic serendipity, and this film simply isn’t. Instead of reveling in the light America’s glory, this film instead wallows in America’s shadows, trading in bloat, excess, and terrible waste.
In 1869, John Reid (Armie Hammer) travels by newly-laid rail to his old Texas hometown, where he is the new District Attorney. There, he will help uphold the law with his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), who leads the Texas Rangers. Unbeknownst to John, also on the train are two prisoners – Tonto (Johnny Depp), a member of the Comanche tribe; and Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), the leader of a vicious gang of outlaws who is en route to his execution. That execution is avoided, however, when Cavendish’s gang hijacks the train and springs their leader, setting Tonto free in the process.
John joins his brother in the Rangers in pursuit of Cavendish, but when the lot of lawmen are ambushed, it looks like the end of John and justice. Tonto finds the fallen men, and as he buries the Rangers, a spirit horse (one day to be named Silver) chooses John as a “spirit walker” – one who has crossed over to the other side but has come back. In the hunt for Cavendish, the now-masked (so that no one knows he’s alive) Lone Ranger, and Tonto, discover that the root of the evil goes beyond the grizzled criminal, and the duo work together to capture Cavendish – and his employer – and bring everyone to justice.
I cannot tell you how many times I saw the trailers for this film, both in theaters and on TV. And every time I did, regardless of which trailer cut I saw and on which screen size I saw it, I had three primary thoughts:
1) From hat to spurs, Hammer cuts a VERY handsome Lone Ranger – I mean Central Casting handsome – but can he carry a film?
2) I don’t know how those big effects will work with the western genre. I remember 1999’s Wild Wild West.
3) Depp is playing Tonto as … funny?
I should have known that if I had those concerns after two minutes of previews, I would have many more after a seemingly-endless 149 minutes of whole movie.
The Lone Ranger is an origin tale and, as I understand the genesis of the character, is faithful enough to its roots. I get that Hollywood needs to change things to make stories work for the screen, and I’m perfectly fine with that. But with that creative liberty comes the responsibility to make the new material as interesting as the source material being leveraged. That doesn’t happen here. Rather than smartly and compellingly fleshing out the origin of a character that began on radio in the 1930s, the film instead uses filler to pad the gaps between ridiculous action sequences.
Consider the villain, Cavendish. I am a huge William Fichtner fan; he is a wonderful character actor whose presence usually strengthens a film’s lineup. Here, though, his talents are entirely wasted. Despite some good makeup that makes him look like the meanest man in all of Texas, with weathered skin and piercing eyes and this permanent snarl that exposes a gold tooth, the Cavendish character is barely two dimensional; he’s less a character and more a character someone told you about. It’s unfortunate, really. Fichtner has a chance to stand toe-to-toe with Depp and Hammer, but the screenplay simply doesn’t allow it.
Speaking of wasted – perhaps unnecessary better describes it – is brothel madame Red Harrington, as played by Helena Bonham Carter. While I find that the actress is becoming something of a modern-day Michael Caine (read: appearing in what seems like every movie), I still enjoy her work, but her character is entirely unnecessary here, and seems only to serve as the film’s vamp. She can fill a corset with the best of them, and male characters lust to touch her temptingly teased ivory prosthetic leg, but beyond that, she serves no real purpose. She is a name on the marquee of a film that has no major female lead, whose role could have been better utilized, with better writing, beyond two major scenes.
There is also a bit (even shown in some trailers) where Dan Reid gives John Reid their father’s Texas Rangers badge, but honestly … that’s it. There is no development of John’s character to suggest that he lived in his father’s shadow. Even the ultimate summer mega-release, 1986’s Top Gun, a film with testosterone for days, knows to address the daddy issues eventually. Top Gun also knows to develop the romance it introduces. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the reason why John becomes part of the Rangers is so shallow and underdeveloped, it makes me wonder why it was included at all, other than to act as caulk for a major crack in the plot.
So many other non-action points of the film are simply unnecessary, and there is so much set-up that leads to so little payoff, I am reminded of another 1986 offering – the fiasco known as the opening of Al Capone’s Vaults. For the uninitiated, journalist Geraldo Rivera built a 2-hour special around the opening of the previously-unopened vaults that belonged to legendary criminal Al Capone, only to discover after 110 minutes of blathering that the vaults were empty, save some stray trash. That’s about it here.
As for my original concerns, yes, once Hammer becomes the Lone Ranger, he looks endlessly fabulous, but no, he cannot carry a film by himself, at least not yet. I’d be willing to give him a chance, though, with better material. I would also be willing to give this duo another chance with better material. There is legitimate chemistry between Depp and Hammer, and that comes through despite what they have to work with.
Depp’s humor, to my third point, is simply awful, both in content and context. The jokes fall flat, they constantly break any sense of serious momentum the film tries to establish, and it all looks like Depp – who gets top billing and who has been the centerpiece of the marketing campaign – is mugging for the camera to show he’s earning his money. Other than Blazing Saddles (1974), Maverick (1994), and maybe one or two other examples, westerns and comedy simply don’t feel right together. Even the examples I cited are comedies first with the western setting as more backdrop than genre. Oh yeah, and they’re funny.
And the action is, surprisingly, a disappointment. There are glimmers of homage to the action of the old serials, with stunts that feel natural in a mash-up of yesteryear’s excitement and today’s souped-up thrills. But they are only glimmers, overpowered by the blinding glare of steroid-injected, CGI-fueled visual bombast. Even composer Hans Zimmer‘s 10-minute enthralling interpretation of Gioachino Rossini‘s William Tell Overture, feels like just another piece of loud music required to accompany an action scene.
With a pop culture legend as its centerpiece and the Disney machine behind it, The Lone Ranger had the potential to be a rare successful character reboot that would bring in the older crowd for nostalgia and the younger crowd for a new breed of hero. Instead, Gore Verbinski made his bad Michael Bay film.