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The Lone Ranger review: weak whiskey

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The Lone Ranger red light Johnny Depp Armie Hammer

Limp and lifeless, this overlong and undercooked would-be blockbuster cannot focus on either the hard-edged realities or the magical mysteries it toys with.
I’m “biast” (pro): was really psyched for this

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

This probably looked great on paper. Take what must be one of the last unplumbed iconic pulp characters with a high nostalgia quotient. Give it to the team of director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters — Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, joined here by Justin Haythe — who cinemagically morphed Pirates of the Caribbean from “dear god they’re making a movie based on a theme-park ride make it stop make it stop” to “holy crap that’s brilliant and funny and wonderful more please now.” Add in Johnny Depp — who, c’mon, was a huge part of why POTC was such a smashing success — and up-and-comer Armie Hammer, who is gorgeous and charismatic and a born comic action hero. How could it go wrong?

And that’s the huge disappointment of The Lone Ranger. It should work. And yet, it’s limp and lifeless. It actively works against itself. It’s belabored. It’s loaded with “production value” (tons of train action and crashing that the Super 8 kids would love) but devoid of soul. Verbinski and Co. captured lightning in a bottle with POTC, but it’s tough to do that twice, and it’s certainly not a thing that can be forced. Yet, it feels like that’s what’s happening here. It’s sad. I so wanted this to be the fun and frothy adventure it clearly wants to be.

Perhaps any chance the film had of working was killed when the screenwriters took the deeply odd path of casting the entire story as something of a one-man show — or a bizarre piece of performance art — for old Tonto, who relates events of 1869 in Texas to a small boy (Mason Cook: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D) in a Lone Ranger costume at a Wild West show in 1933 San Francisco. There’s an uncomfortable and distancing fantastical element to Tonto’s very presence in 1933: he was (apparently) a mannequin in a life-size diorama of the Old West who comes to life before the kid’s eyes and begins to tell the kid of his adventures with John Reid, aka the Lone Ranger. And there are attempts to blend the 1869 past and the 1933 present, as with the kid’s distinctive striped roasted-peanuts paper bag blowing across a scene in Texas. Is the kid imagining the whole thing? Even if he isn’t, Tonto is an extremely unreliable narrator. For one, we’re learn later that Tonto’s “mind is broken.” For another, Tonto skips right over some potentially derailing plotholes: like, how did Tonto get out of jail in that one scene so he could continue with his adventures in the next? Either the framing story is a cheap trick to patch over some tricky bits in the plot, which is inexcusable. Or else it’s a way to make jokes about the artificiality of movie narratives, which fails miserably. (All attempts at humor throughout the film fall flat.)

Whatever the reason, the upshot is that The Lone Ranger is giving us every reason not to buy a word of it, which is precisely what the film does not need, particularly not when it takes as long as it does to get going and to impart to us the first inkling of what its tale is going to be or what’s going to be at stake for anyone. And when it finally gets there, there’s not a lot of there there. John Reid (Hammer: Mirror Mirror, J. Edgar) is the new DA just arrived in the small Texas town where his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale: World War Z, Iron Man 3), is a Texas Ranger (which were sort of like an early state police force). John’s biggest problem initially is that he’s in love with his brother’s wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), and it’s unfortunate that Dan’s death at the hands of a gang of bandits led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner: Drive Angry, Date Night) leaves hanging in the air the unpleasant notion that this means John is finally going to get his dream girl. Along the way there’s an allegedly magical white spirit horse that chooses John to be a supposedly mystical avenger of something-or-other… or at least that’s what Tonto (Depp: Dark Shadows, The Rum Diary) tells us (and John). The problem is that nothing about it feels in the least bit magical, or that the rational world has been “thrown out of balance.” Depp’s stumbling Captain Jack drag act notwithstanding.

It feels, instead, like treading would-be fairy-tale water until — finally! — we get to something that might potentially have been interesting and relevant to today’s audiences: a plot by rich railroad men (including Tom Wilkinson: Fury, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) to remake the railroads and, indeed, the world for their own benefit. Hello, one-percenters! There’s even a small angle that could have resonated with current push-and-pull about resistance versus terrorism. Such hard-edged, real-world stuff sits very uneasily next to the fantasy stuff… and yet, with neither aspect fully developed, both are weak tea. Or weak whiskey.

And what a waste of of Helena Bonham Carter (Les Misérables, Great Expectations)! Her Red Harrington, sassy whorehouse madam, is shoehorned in, apparently, so that the film’s lone female character isn’t a pretty young widow who cannot even be decently offered up as a reward to the hero, as would be standard practice for such a flick. But Red isn’t really part of the story, which is worse — and more offensive — than if she hadn’t been here at all. Here’s a hint, Hollywood: We don’t want more women onscreen as window-dressing — we want them as real characters with authentic participation in the story. You could have been subversive here by making Tonto female… or the Lone Ranger.

In fact, though, Hammer’s presence is the only thing worth watching here. He’s fun, he’s funny (just being himself, and not through anything the script offers to him), and he’s got just the right mixture of I-don’t-wanna-be-a-hero humility and genuine muscularity, both physical and spiritual. It would be a real cinematic crime if the failure of The Lone Ranger were attributed to him, because he deserves much better than this to show off all the kinds of entertaining he can be.

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Region 1
release date:

Dec 17 2013

Amazon US
Amazon US VOD
Amazon Canada
Region 2
release date:

Dec 2 2013

Amazon UK
Amazon UK VOD
US/Canada release date: Jul 3 2013 | UK release date: Aug 9 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated H4: hi-ho ho-hum
MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material
BBFC: rated 12A (contains moderate violence and injury detail)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • LaSargenta

    Not really related at all to the movie, but this story http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/06/sport/lone-ranger-african-american-reeves/?hpt=us_t2 came up again and I like it and wanted to post it. Bit of real, messy, interesting US history and maybe the source of the Lone Ranger story.

  • RogerBW

    I think that part of the problem that westerns haven’t been big business in the last thirty-plus years. Unforgiven did all right (and deconstructed them in the process). But most of the audience for this film probably has only the vaguest idea of who the Lone Ranger is meant to be, so when the film starts saying “no, he wasn’t always the icon, he started like this” they have no basis for comparison.

    (Which is quite separate from the usual screenwriter error of taking an iconic character, someone whose dramatic power comes from his changelessness, and gives him an origin story.)

    I read a review elsewhere which suggests that all these problems are deliberate, and the film’s trying to destroy the Lone Ranger myth. I think that would work better if people actually wanted to see it. I’m faintly surprised it’s even getting a UK release after its dismal performance in the USA.

  • http://www.kingnewbs.com/ KingNewbs

    Well they gotta try and recoup that ridiculously overlarge budget.

    I haven’t seen LONE RANGER yet, but I’ll probably watch it at home someday, if only because Outlaw Vern liked it.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    If they wanted to destroy the myth, they took an odd path in rendering the story twice removed from the audience and difficult to take as fact, which ends up treating it like a myth.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I don’t know where that budget went. It’s not up on the screen.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I recall coming out of this feeling that I had no idea what this movie was trying to say.

  • OnceJolly

    Unforgiven betrays a lot of its premises, though, when Munny confronts Bill and his men single-handed in the climax.

  • Matt Clayton

    There’s nothing in The Lone Ranger that couldn’t be done for a fraction of the price (the Coens’ True Grit feels more authentic and bigger). Methinks Depp, Bruckheimer, and Verbinski’s paychecks were more than half of that $215M-$225M budget.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    You’ll probably right. And the worst thing is, the box office failure of this movie will not impact their future salaries at all. It should, but it won’t. The outrageousness of their salaries will have been “justified” because all foresaw the film earning a billion worldwide. It didn’t, but that won’t matter. Blame is already being apportioned elsewhere, to those who have little power over a film’s success (ie, critics) and who had NO power over the making of the film. And they’ll all go on their smug way.

  • MisterAntrobus

    I’ve never really been on the Verbinski/Rossio/Elliott bandwagon anyway – the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was a pleasant surprise, but each of the sequels felt increasingly like they had simply thrown a rough draft up on the screen, with dozens of story threads that went absolutely nowhere, scotch-taped together by Depp’s scenery-chewing weirdness. On top of their inability to create a coherent screenplay, Depp’s inexplicable choice to play Tonto in redface (or black-and-white-and-dead-crow-face) made the whole thing look like a train wreck from the start. I was happy to see the news that it flopped.

  • RogerBW

    Yeah, I’m broadly in the same camp — first PotC film was great, second and third pretty much left me cold.

  • David_Conner

    For what it’s worth, one thing I learned from the several lengthy post-mortems on the movie is that the shooting script contains very, very little of what Elliott and Rossio wrote. It’s almost all the third credited screenwriter, who came on after the film’s budget was slashed and (among other things) some expensive ideas like a band of werewolves were dropped.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    the shooting script contains very, very little of what Elliott and Rossio wrote

    I’m not sure I’m buying that. In fact, I’m fairly certain I’m not. This thing has their fingerprints all over it.

    after the film’s budget was slashed

    Slashed? From what?? What was the original budget “All the money”???

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Bruckheimer is safe. He raises the money, after all. That’s what he does. And he’s had more than enough success to insulate himself from quite a few failures.

    Johnny Depp is… well… he’s Johnny Depp. The dude has had a charmed career. No amount of box office failure is likely to hurt him.

    Verbinski, on the other hand… He’s going to likely have a difficult time getting anyone but Bruckheimer to drop this kind of cash on any of his projects for a couple movies at least.

  • RogerBW

    Indeed, if I were involved in film funding, I might well now be saying “Verbinski + Depp worked ok for Pirates, but they can’t carry that over into other films”.
    Depp can do non-huge films (and has done, pretty well). Verbinski might have to go back to advertisements and music videos…

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    I would say, Get better scripts.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    “Depp can do non-huge films (and has done, pretty well).”

    Yes, but he’s hardly going to be restricted to that. Like I said, he’s charmed. He’ll continue to do whatever movies he wants, for whatever money he wants, for the foreseeable future. Think Sean Connery in the late 80s and 90s.

    “Verbinski might have to go back to advertisements and music videos…”

    Nah, this won’t set him back that far. But I don’t expect his next film or two to get greenlit for more than, say, “Rango” or “PotC1″ money, i.e. $120-150M. Bear in mind that the second two PotC films brought in about billion dollars each. That’s alone is going to buy him a couple of good sized failures before he’s back to videos and commercials.

    Thing is, while “The Lone Ranger” was a commercial failure, I don’t think it was a bad movie. It just wasn’t a very good movie, one that suffers from some tonal inconsistency and indecision.

    What’s really dead in the water here idea of “The Lone Ranger” as a viable, valuable property. in almost 60 years, both attempts to revive the character have resulted in legendary turkeys, renowned for squandering a significant amount of talent, on screen and off, on a film no one wanted to see. I don’t think, however, that this will do to Armie Hammer what it did to Klinton Spilsbury, largely because 1) this wasn’t Hammer’s first rodeo and 2) Spilsbury seems to have had problems unrelated to acting.

  • RogerBW

    It’s interesting to see how failures affect directors’ careers. Sometimes they make no films at all; sometimes they’re stuck with small stuff for a while; sometimes they get lumbered with complete dogs that nobody could take seriously (stuff that’ll sell well in the target market but that nobody would mistake for great film).
    In the only language that matters to Hollywood, The Lone Ranger is a failure because its opening weekend gross was just 13% of its budget. (I’m estimating the latter.) That commercial failure is what’s going to determine who gets to make what films in future, not any artistic interest.
    I completely agree with you on the devaluation of the Lone Ranger as a film property — not so much that it’s dead, more that people will now have to admit that it’s dead — and that it shouldn’t hit Hammer too hard.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    So, you’re saying that in Hollywood, the currency of the realm is… currency? :-D

  • MisterAntrobus

    . . . A band of werewolves in the middle of a Lone Ranger movie does sound like something Rossio and Elliott would have come up with. *eye roll*

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