The Lone Ranger review: weak whiskey

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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