It is very much appropriate that the first big action set piece in The Lone Ranger is an extended train wreck—loud, long, violent. Admittedly, the spectacle is at times impressive, but eventually, the civilized part of your brain has to admit that all-in-all, it would have been best if the train wreck had never happened.
That certainly describes the movie as a whole. The Lone Ranger is an attempt to catch lightning for a second time. A decade ago, most were looking askance at Disney foisting yet another ride-based movie on audiences—the great surprise was that a lot of fun resulted.
Apparently after four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the major players were looking to do something new. So why not take Disney, director Gore Verbinski, screenwriter Ted Elliott, and wacky star Johnny Depp and do a big-screen adaptation of an old TV show that the vast majority of the audience will have never actually seen?
We get reasonably good performances from Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger. We also get several action sequences that, taken in isolation, are pretty good. There's even the occasional bit of good dialogue. But taken in its entirety, the movie is an assault.
It is an assault on your bladder and your attention. Roger Ebert famously said that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. Well, at 149 minutes, The Lone Ranger is way too long. At its core, this is a movie about a couple of men seeking revenge for having been done wrong—it is not Doctor Zhivago, with an epic sweep that just can't be contained in less than two hours.
It is an assult on the PG-13 rating. Parents might be forgiven for assuming that a Disney summer blockbuster would go for goreless cartoon violence. Instead, you'll be treated to bullets exploding through chests. There'll be people getting run over by horses, by trains, by wagons. One completely extraneous on-screen death involves a guy installing telegraph wire, getting wrapped up in the wire, and being pulled down to his death.
These are not the anonymous mass deaths of comic book movies (if you think about what you see in The Avengers, while thousands of people must have died, almost none of them did so on screen), but individually presented deaths.
I have no problem with graphic depictions of violence, but I do have a problem with it apparently not meaning anything if it is followed comedically by Tonto trying to feed his dead crow. Oh, did I forget to mention the moment of cannibalism that is so explicitly presented that afterward, you're only mostly sure that you never actually saw the heart get eaten?
It is an assault on coherent storytelling. The movie has a strange framing device. While The Lone Ranger takes place in 1869 Texas, it starts with a young Lone Ranger fan visiting a small carnival in 1933 San Francisco. In an Old West exhibit, that young boy runs into an aged Tonto (fun fact: If 1869 Tonto was the same age as Johnny Depp, in 1933 Tonto would have been 114 years old), who begins telling the story that is the main part of the movie. In addition to these interruptions adding an extra 15 minutes, they appear to serve absolutely no purpose other than to introduce an unreliable narrator. So freed, the writers and director can do whatever they want. Want a tree-climbing horse? Oh that wacky Tonto and his tall tales. Any narrative gap can be waved away.
It is an assault on kindness. I'll admit that I went into the movie prepared to be mildly offended by a prominent Native American role being given to Johnny Depp instead of an actual Native American. My radar was poised to go off at cartoonishly exagerrated Old West "injun" stereotypes. That didn't really happen. Tonto's quirks are presented as his own and not his tribe's. Instead, the mild offense came from an unexpected direction: The bad guys are led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), and he is a mustache- (if he had one) twirling bad guy. All of his men are deviant. And how do we know that one of them, Frank (Harry Treadaway) is truly messed up in the head? He wears women's clothing. Have we really not moved on from travestitism being a handy metaphor for being screwed up? Apparently not.
It is a shame. Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp have decent chemistry and in scenes where the character has priority over spectacle, one can see the bones of something as fun as the Pirates movies. Just a little discipline, a trim here, more consistency of tone, accepting that it wants to be spiritual argle-bargle (thank you Justice Scalia) and not creating the crutch of an unreliable narrator. Any one or two of the flaws could be forgiven in the name of stupid entertainment, but the sins pile too high, and each becomes interolable in its own right.
Instead, while there are quite a few enjoyable moments sprinkled throughout, we're stuck with multiple train wrecks—and the civilized part of my brain must admit that it would have been for the best had it never happened.
- The Lone Ranger is a Walt Disney Pictures release.
- Wide theatrical release on Wednesday, July 3, 2013
- Directed by Gore Verbinski
- Starring: Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, William Fichtner
- Running time: 149 minutes
- Rated PG-13
- Alex's rating: 3 out of 10