Here’s what I know about the Lone Ranger: He wears a mask. He has a pal named Tonto and a horse named Silver. He has his own theme music, courtesy of the William Tell Overture.
That’s it. And for thirty some odd years, that has been more than enough to get by.
Now, I respect a man with a theme song (a possible residual effect of growing up watching professional wrestling), but when Disney announced that they were dusting off the Lone Ranger for a feature film I was a bit perplexed. This is, after all, 2013 and I doubt that anyone under the age of 60 has any more of a working knowledge about the character than I do. The Lone Ranger had his heyday during the days of radio and early television; he’s not really on the radar of a generation of kids raised with the Internet and cable television. So I don’t think that there was a groundswell of support for this character to get an update. When most people heard that The Lone Ranger was getting the big screen treatment, I’m sure the general response was “who?”
In addition to The Lone Ranger being practically decrepit by pop culture standards, the franchise also has the added baggage of Tonto. When The Lone Ranger was created, people did not have the same informed and enlightened view of Native Americans that (I hope) we have today. What might have flown as acceptable in the early half of the 1900s is not necessarily the way to portray a character in the 2000s. Putting a character that speaks broken English and that could be seen as a caricature of a group of people seemed like a risky proposition to undertake; the chance of offending people should have been a real concern. A delicate balance would have to be found between staying loyal to the source material and the times in which the stories were set and the culturally sensitivity of today. In my opinion, adapting The Long Ranger for a modern audience was an endeavor that was very high risk with a small chance for reward. If I had been a Disney executive, I wouldn’t have greenlit the project.
Now that I’ve seen the movie, I still wouldn’t have approved this movie – but for a very different reason. While I think that they avoided most of the potential pitfalls with Tonto, The Lone Ranger just isn’t a very good movie. The film has a bit of an identity crisis and with a running time of two hours and twenty minutes it is way too long. Some of the casting is questionable. But The Lone Ranger’s real problem is that it just is really boring.
Now, The Lone Ranger can only really be considered a super hero by the broadest definition, but the movie falls prey to one of the clichés of the super hero genre: the need for an origin story. It seems that you can’t have a Batman, Superman or Spiderman movie without some drawn out explanation of how Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Peter Parker made their miraculous transformation from regular person to crime fighting machine. The Lone Ranger sets out to explain how John Reid became “the man in the mask” and met up with Tonto, but it is all so drawn out and generally boring that I really didn’t care. Just slap a mask on the guy and be done with it. In my mind, the origin story that they cooked up has many unnecessary elements – did we really need the woman and the kid? – and actually leaves some of the more interesting questions unanswered – why, exactly, did Reid leave his family and the girl he loved nine years ago? The film cooks up an unnecessarily elaborate story about the railroad that takes way too long to really get cooking. It’s almost 2 hours into the film before we get to see The Lone Ranger really in action and by that time I just didn’t care. I started checking my watch 25 minutes into the film, which is never a good sign.
The film is tonally very inconsistent; it can’t quite figure out how to be an action story, a comedy and deal with the real life historical events respectfully all at the same time. It never quite gets the balance right resulting in a very uncomfortable juxtaposition of the slaughter of hundreds of Native Americans followed up by a joke. It was a cringe worthy moment – I can’t believe that anyone screened this movie and didn’t realize that there needed to be some distance between the two moments. That may be the worst example from the film, but the problem of tonal balance runs throughout the movie. The Lone Ranger has itself a bit of an identity crisis. These problems are compounded by the pacing – there are long periods where not much of anything is happening. Then there will be a short burst of excitement followed by a lot more boring stuff. There is no momentum in this film. Even when the big action sequence finally unfolds it doesn’t really work; since they saved up all the excitement for the end, there is so much going on that it is sensory overload. After sitting so much boring nonsense, my brain couldn’t handle a movie’s worth of action crammed into one twenty minute chunk. A more even distribution of the thrills would have been beneficial.
I generally like star Armie Hammer; I find that he has an affable screen persona and isn’t too hard on the eyes. He was pretty much the only thing that I liked about Mirror, Mirror, which I was forced to watch when the fools in the Academy for Motion Pictures decided to nominated it for an Oscar. He did a fine job as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. But it is pretty clear from The Lone Ranger that he isn’t quite up to carrying his own movie yet. As written and portrayed by Hammer, The Lone Ranger is kind of a doofus. He is a bit of a wimp for most of the movie and his stubborn refusal to use real violence through most of the film borders on the tedious. He’s tall, so he’s got that going for him, but otherwise there isn’t much hero material presented. If it wasn’t for Tonto, I don’t know if The Lone Ranger would be able to figure anything out. I still like Hammer – he seems like a nice enough guy – but I don’t think that he is movie star material. He’d probably be great in a rom-com or in a supporting role, but he just isn’t ready for the burden of carrying a movie.
Johnny Depp basically steals this movie as Tonto, but that’s kind of like taking candy from a baby. The choice to make The Lone Ranger kind of a dummy and Tonto the smart one is a bit of a reversal from the original incarnation of the characters and most likely was done to address some of the concerns that I raised earlier. Depp’s Tonto still speaks with somewhat broken English, but there is no doubt that he is the smartest guy in the room. Depp plays the character straight but with a sense of fun – he honestly seems to be the only person in this film having any fun. He has the best jokes in the film, but he also gets stuck trying to sell some questionable dialogue. Tonto has the same problems as the film as a whole – they can’t quite decide if he’s a jokester or if they should make him serious. The result is a half-measure that doesn’t fully work; I wish that they had just let Depp off his leash to do whatever he wanted. That probably wouldn’t have worked either, but at least it would have been more interesting to watch. The fact that Hammer and Depp have little to no chemistry also handicaps the film.
Some other thoughts:
- If the whole purpose of wearing the mask is so that people don’t recognize you, you might want to shed the giant white hat that everyone made fun of you for wearing. Clark Kent wearing glasses is more effective than The Lone Ranger’s disguise; I don’t think a single person in the film was fooled.
- The commercials for this movie give the impression that Helena Bonham Carter is in this movie way more than she is. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I think Tim Burton has ruined her – but it is misleading.
- I’m not even going to complain about the ludicrous plot and action sequences. This movie is what it is.
- I’ll be interested to hear what Native Americans think of Depp portrayal of Tonto; I thought it was generally respectful, but I defer to their judgment. I’m sure an objection can be raised that this character should have been played by an actual Native American.
- The film has a great supporting cast (Barry Pepper, Tom Wilkinson, James Badge Dale) but they really aren’t given much to do. The bad guys are just generic bad guys.
- The character played by Ruth Wilson is sought after by several men in this film, but I honestly don’t see what all the hoopla was about. She’s pretty, but she isn’t all that and a bag of chips (though I may be influenced by her role as Alice on the BBC show Luther where she plays quite the psycho).
- One of the previews before The Lone Ranger almost made me openly weep: Josh Holloway (the ever so dreamy Sawyer from Lost) is starring in a movie where he plays the coach of a dance team (and co-stars with Chris Brown – yup THAT Chris Brown).
Has it really come to this for Josh? Hollywood – you’re killing me. This man deserves better!
- For the parents out there: This film is more violent than you would expect; they do shy away from showing some of the more gruesome action that is simply alluded to (one of the characters is also apparently something of a cannibal because why not?) but it might be more than you want your kids to see. There is also a trip to a whorehouse, but that is pretty PG.
- The whole flashback narration part of the movie didn’t work for me at all – all that nonsense could have been cut and would have resulted in a shorter movie.
The 4th of July has been the launching pad for some very successful movies like Independence Day and Spider Man 2, but The Lone Ranger is closer to the box office disaster that was Wild Wild West (apparently westerns on the 4th of July are not a good idea). While this movie was terrible, it committed the larger sin of being boring. The Lone Ranger is simply poorly executed; Johnny Depp does what he can, but the whole thing is pretty much DOA. The new catchphrase for this movie should be “Hi-Ho Silver, take it away!”
The Lone Ranger opens nationwide today.