Published Dec 17, 2013So much racism, so little space.
Disney's stab at the Lone Ranger will go down as the summer of 2013's John Carter/Cutthroat Island/Heaven's Gate/[insert big-budget box-office bomb]. But if there's any justice in the annals of cinema, it will be remembered as the summer audiences said "no" to a film that asked us to buy one of Hollywood's most famous leading men in redface.
Johnny Depp re-teams with Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski in a film that feels as if that ocean bound franchise was dropped in the middle of the American West. Considering the film is about a land-grab to build a railroad, the plot is incredibly convoluted. It opens in 1933 where a young boy, dressed as the Lone Ranger, enters a carnival's Wild West Exhibition. There he finds an aged Tonto, posing in the "Nobel Savage" exhibit. After mistaking the kid for his old partner, Tonto, who wears a dead crow on his head that he regularly feeds throughout the film, goes on to share the Lone Ranger's origin story.
The two meet on a train where John Reid (played by The Social Network's Armie Hammer) is just a lawyer travelling to meet his brother, a ranger, and his wife and child. Tonto is a prisoner along with the outlaw Butch Cavendish, played by William Fichtner.
Cavendish is sprung loose in the film's only memorable action sequence. Tonto uses the chaos to escape while Reid, who is deputized, his brother Dan and a posse of rangers go searching for the escaped Cavendish. Betrayed by one of their own, they're all gunned down in a canyon and left to die. Tonto finds the bodies and nurses John back to health after a white horse reveals that Reid is a spirit walker. With both men seeking revenge — John for his brother's murder, Tonto for the betrayal and slaughter of his people at the hands of Cavendish and a nefarious railroad magnate (Tom Wilkinson) — the main plot is finally put in motion.
While no one's watching this film expecting the kind of brooding pathos of recent Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it's amazing how dull and lifeless The Lone Ranger is. Long periods of screen time are dedicated to Reid and Tonto's squabbles, the inexperienced hot shot versus the old steady hand archetypes torn straight from a buddy cop film. Like Pirates, Verbinski is banking on Depp's likeability to carry the film. Except this isn't Tonto's movie. By shifting focus, Verbinski guts the picture of its hero, who becomes the boring straight man for Depp's far more dynamic Tonto.
But even as he steals the film we must grapple with the troublesome decision of casting Depp in the role in the first place. The fact that studio execs believed audiences would accept a white actor in the role of an American Indian shows just how out of touch Hollywood remains when it comes to the portrayal of aboriginal peoples. What's even more troubling is the monosyllabic pidgin dialogue the writers carried over from the popular 1950s television series, hampering the character with 60-year-old cultural stereotypes. Insult is further added to injury by the use of vague Comanche Indian mysticism to explain away many of the films more preposterous scenarios.
The surprisingly scant extras do little to explain how a film with so few interesting action sequences cost over $200 million to make. Instead we get vignettes like "Becoming a Cowboy," which shows the cast learning to ride horses and rope objects. A couple of extras — one shown in rough, computer animated form — similarly fail to account for the haphazard narrative on display in the final picture. A commentary track from Verbinski would have been useful, at least to hear him explain what exactly he was thinking when he hatched this farce.
Racism aside — and that's a big hurdle to get over — The Lone Ranger is a big summer blockbuster that simply fails to deliver in terms of both fun and spectacle.