Huge success has clearly affected Johnny Depp. He used to be a very interesting actor, popping up in a variety of eclectic films for over a decade. Then Pirates of the Caribbean happened, and it hit big. Suddenly Hollywood’s handsome, quirky oddball became an A-list star. Now he’s headlining gigantic movies, doing his eccentric thing again and again while pumping out endless Pirates sequels (a fifth is in the pipeline). And it looks like we’re all getting quite tired of him now.
The Lone Ranger is obviously an attempt by Disney to recreate the success of Pirates. We have the same star, director, producer, and writers, bringing to life a period adventure film based on a property that wouldn’t necessarily be a selling point to most of its target audience.
The Lone Ranger has been around in various forms for decades, first a radio show, then a TV show, comics, novels etc., but nothing much that the Pirates audience will be familiar with. Personally, my only experience of the character was an enjoyable run from Dynamite comics a few years back. Still, I like westerns, we don’t get many nowadays, and Depp and director Gore Verbinski did give us a great spin on the genre with Rango two years ago, so I was holding out hope for this.
Unfortunately, the film is absolutely full of problems.
First, the framing. The film begins in 1933, with Depp playing an elderly Tonto, reciting the story to a young boy at a carnival. This is for starters quite sad, the idea that Tonto, who’s a legend within the film’s mythology, ends up as a sideshow attraction. In contrast, the old-man make-up on Depp is quite comically hideous. Mainly however, it’s just totally unnecessary, and we cut back to it numerous times.
This is, inevitably, an origin story, meaning that it’s all quite predictable, designed with the aim of producing sequels, and that we’re not actually going to see the Lone Ranger being such until a good deal into the film. The Lone Ranger is not in fact a ranger in this version too, but a stuck-up lawyer who returns to his home town to visit his brother, who is a heroic Texas ranger. He’s also creepily in love with his brother’s wife (a thankless role for Luther’s Ruth Wilson).
In what may be the result of numerous re-writes and re-edits, this film is tonally all over the place. There’s a good deal of slapstick comedy and such aimed at a younger audience, but there’s some serious issues in there too, and neither is handled well. There’s a scene in which an entire Indian tribe is slaughtered with a machine gun, intercut with clearly comedic shots of Tonto and the Lone Ranger escaping on a rail track. And the tribe is instantly forgotten about afterward. The film’s presentation of Native Americans is a prime example of its misguided nature. They might think they’re doing a good thing by having the bad guys be all white and the Indians be victims but they’re still depicted in a stereotypical way.
The level of violence in this film is also quite troubling. There is a scene in this film in which a man cuts out another man’s still-beating heart and eats it raw. Seriously, that happens. And this is supposed to be a family film Disney? Later on, two men have their heads crushed in by a falling beam, and that’s played for laughs.
As for the central duo themselves, Armie Hammer might look like a typical, square-jawed American hero but the film decides to not depict him as such. Instead he’s a very timid individual, and has his first big hero moment entirely by accident. Even someone only vaguely familiar with the character can see that the film has little reverence for him. As Tonto, Depp speaks in pidgin English and talks of weird mysticisms (no stereotypes here, hmm). He also wears a dead bird on his head throughout the whole film that he continually ‘feeds’, it’s quite annoying. As a result, they fail to create a dynamic like the best film buddies can. They are not mismatched partners, they are both rather dim and often end up trapped together. It’s not exactly ‘Dumb and Dumber Head West’ but it’s aiming more in that direction. There are numerous occasions in which they only survive by being saved by their horse. Oh, and let’s not forget that Depp is not actually Native American, making his lines about ‘stupid white men’ particularly queasy.
And there are some random CGI carnivorous rabbits thrown in for no apparent reason.
The film clocks in at around two and a half hours, and you can really feel the length. It seems dreadfully long, and there’s so much that could easily have been cut out; the entire framing structure for one, along with superfluous characters like Helena Bonham Carter’s madam, who seems to have wandered in from a Robert Rodriguez film.
There are a few good things, Tom Wilkinson and an almost unrecognizable William Fichtner do a dependable job as the villainous characters, the score is decent and there are plenty of gorgeous western location shots. Though I couldn’t have been the only one thinking; ‘since when has Monument Valley been in Texas?’
The film does finally kick into gear in its final act, delivering an exciting and inventive chase sequence involving multiple trains and horses. It’s the only sign of the film I hoped this might be. However, the film has been so much of a slog to get through to this point a great climactic sequence can’t save this overlong, overblown mess of a movie. Even after it’s done the film has several epilogues. I wouldn’t mind seeing that action scene again but would have zero interest in sitting through the rest of the film to get to it.
The Lone Ranger is already showing signs of being a huge flop. This may be a wakeup call for Disney (and Depp), but it’s unfortunate to think that all the poor decisions made here might very well prevent any studio from attempting a tent-pole western for years.