WASHINGTON, July 4, 2013 — Like the recently released Brad Pitt monster-thriller “World War Z” — which was defeated at the box office by Disney-Pixar’s not-quite-first-class “Monsters University” last weekend — Disney’s own offbeat Western, “The Lone Ranger,” is likely falling behind the Benjamin account being generated by another animated feature, the Universal sequel “Despicable Me 2,” this holiday weekend.
What gives? How could big box office names like Brad Pitt (“WWZ”) and Johnny Depp (“Lone Ranger”) get their clocks cleaned by a cadre of imaginary computer-animated creatures?
The answer, or answers, could be deceptively simple, at least when comparing “Z” and “Ranger” to “Monsters.” (We will be seeing “Despicable 2” soon.) In a nutshell, “Monsters” boasts a compact and easy-to-follow, if somewhat formulaic plot. Plus, the film takes some time to develop real sympathy with its key characters, all of whom are clearly and carefully defined.
Ironically, both live action features, “Z” and “Ranger,” while entertaining in many respects, suffer from overly complex plotting, an over-reliance on bombast and noise, and characters who, for all their time on screen, we scarcely get to know.
“The Lone Ranger” comes tantalizingly close to being a really good film. But it’s burdened with too many sideshows. Even worse: its genuinely visceral — if physically improbable — concluding chase scene is one of the best ever. But it takes two whole hours to get to the excitement.
Truth be told, there were likely two movies hidden inside this edifice. It’s odd that someone didn’t figure that out. Adding a few extra scenes to a subdivided can of film might have resulted in a pair of shorter hits instead of a single sausage casing crammed with too much material.
We’ll explore this further in a moment, but how about a trailer first?
For the uninitiated, the original tale of the Lone Ranger evolved from a 1933 radio serial that actually originated on a Detroit radio station.
Most aging Boomers (like your friendly critic), though, are likely to remember the Ranger as one of the earliest TV Western heroes back in an era (the 1950s and 1960s) when cowboy soap operas dominated the boob tube. Running for eight seasons (although for various reasons, not that many original episodes were produced), TV’s “The Lone Ranger” starred the stalwart Clayton Moore in the title role with actual Canadian Indian actor Jay Silverheels as his sidekick Tonto.
Moore was TV’s classic western good guy. He wore a mask, but we learned why that was in an episode or two that explained his secret origins.
The Lone Ranger was once a real Texas Ranger named John Reid. He and a posse of fellow Rangers, in pursuit of dangerous outlaw Butch Cavendish and his gang, were brutally ambushed by them and all were killed.
Except John Reid wasn’t quite killed. He is discovered and nursed back to health by his old childhood friend, the Comanche Indian Tonto. To keep his identity secret, Reid decides to go anonymous. Hence the mask and his mysterious identity as the “lone” Ranger, the only one who survived the Cavendish gang’s ambush. Together, the improbable pair decides to bring Truth, Justice, and the American Way to the untamed Wild West. And thus were the legend, the TV show, and the movies born.
As portrayed on TV, Moore’s Ranger was an All-American Boy Scout, honest, loyal, true, an upholder of the law and a believer in equality, constantly defended the very existence of his Indian sidekick.
As portrayed by Silverheels, Tonto, too, was the classic western hero’s sidekick, except for being an Indian. Loyal and true, he helped rescue the Ranger from impossible situations just as the Ranger would save Tonto from similar predicaments.
A 1980s film revival of this classic character — “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” — was a spectacular flop due to its lame treatment of its hero, an absurd lawsuit and the disastrous portrayal of the Ranger by unknown actor Klinton Spilsbury, who never acted in another film again.
Disney’s current reboot adapts a single revisionary element of the 1981 version of the Ranger but moves things in a different direction. That element? Our 2013 version of John Reid, while still born in the West, has gone back East to get an education, returning as a stuffy nebbish of an attorney.
Within the context of the film, this is a tough sell. We’re forced to believe this pompous snob will, in short order, become an expert shot as well as an expert horseman. Even more unbelievable: His brother, Dan, drafts younger bro John into his Butch Cavendish posse despite the fact that John doesn’t believe in rough justice and refuses to fire a gun.
The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre
Maybe the best way to sort out our impressions of the current “The Lone Ranger” is to list the good things and the bad things and weigh them to find out which side wins.
Let’s do that.
Johnny Depp’s bizarre Tonto. Is the Lone Ranger’s sidekick smoking something on the side? Depp’s quirky portrayal melds his Captain Jack Sparrow character with Lone Watie, Chief Dan George in Clint Eastwood’s 1976 classic, “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” His sun-crackled white face paint and bird-adorned headdress are distinctive and strange, and his erratic behavior would certainly have puzzled Jay Silverheels as well as any Comanches out there in movie land. But surprisingly, Depp’s weird shtick mostly works.
Unreliable narrator. Related to the above, “Lone Ranger’s” story is narrated retrospectively by an ancient Tonto who’s making a few bucks in a carny sideshow circa 1933. He’s clearly an unreliable narrator. For that reason, we never know whether he’s telling the truth or merely spinning compelling and entertaining fabrications. Some may regard this as stupid and self-indulgent on Depp’s part. That said, it’s still a neat way of finessing the film’s more unbelievable elements.
James Badge Dale’s crusty Dan Reid. From right out of the Old American West we think we remember, the Ranger’s older brother, alas, is taken out early in the film in a somewhat less-than-PG-13 manner. Even so, the space Dan Reid inhabits imbues this film with the rough cowboy philosophy that should have been more prominent throughout.
William Fichtner’s Butch Cavendish. Particularly with regard to his character’s nasty but specific dietary requirements, we think Fichtner’s portrayal of this split-lipped, perpetually snarling villain is a repellently effective blend of a psychopathic enforcer and that cartoon classic, Snidely Whiplash.
Silver. Not the metal (which figures prominently in the plot), but the Ranger’s snow-white stallion. Silver bears some resemblance to the ancient Greeks’ Pegasus in his beauty, intelligence, power, and resourcefulness. Tonto regards the horse as a spirit entity, which leads not only to some of the film’s funnier moments, but also explains some of the horse’s more improbable feats.
The film’s physical and CGI special effects. Mostly held back until roughly the last half-hour, the special effects in this film seem more natural than those we’ve witnessed recently in “Man of Steel” and “Star Trek II.” That said, we’re not sure how many of the fantastic stunts would pass real-world muster on TV’s “MythBusters.”
The film’s on-location shots. The bulk of this film appears to have been shot outdoors in spectacular western American landscapes, primarily in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The lead-up to the Texas Rangers’ massacre, set against the backdrop of Arizona’s spectacular Canyon de Chelly National Monument, is both ominous and breathtaking.
The movie is so-o-o-o-o-o long. ‘Nuff said.
Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Harrington. A feisty and marginally prosperous bordello madam, Carter’s character was no doubt watered down to help the film gain its PG-13 rating. But Red Harrington, along with her Cirque du Soleil-style house of ill repute, is mostly superfluous to the plot structure. We’re eventually led to believe that somehow she’s put together a massive crew of Baker Street Irregulars to help Tonto and the Ranger foil the bad guys near the end of the film. But the set-up scenes just eat too much clock.
Tom Wilkinson’s Latham Cole. It’s pretty obvious from the film’s outset that railroad magnate Latham Cole is really this movie’s ur-villain. After all, what arch-capitalist robber baron isn’t the bad guy in every Hollywood production these days? Wilkinson gives his psycho character a go. But Cole’s rapid shift from oily entrepreneur to murderous super-villain is just too facile.
The film’s physical and CGI special effects. Okay, we cited these elements as positives, above. But they’re also negatives. Some of the thrills and spills executed by the film’s principal characters — or more likely their stunt doubles — are simply not survivable under any circumstances. That’s particularly true of Tonto’s canyon-deep dive onto a traveling cargo train of silver ore. He plummets toward a railroad car filled to the brim with chunks of silver ore, landing with enough force to shatter even a Transformer’s steel backbone. And survives. Please.
So what do we REALLY think?
Weighing the good, the bad, and the so-so, the good in this film ultimately outweighs its clear and present potential for tedium, but not by much.
Depp’s characterization of Tonto is quirky and in our face at times, reminding us, and maybe a few old film aficionados, of Marlon Brando’s unnerving, out-of-control performance in the 1970s Western, “The Missouri Breaks.”
But unlike Brando, who was creepy, Depp knows how to be funny.
At this point, let’s finally introduce “The Lone Ranger’s” eponymous hero. After all, John Reid — The Lone Ranger — is presumably the focus of this film. And he actually is. For about the last twenty minutes of the movie, which is a problem. He seems at times to be treated as an afterthought, which is strange since he’s supposed to be the hero.
Tall, good-looking young actor Armie Hammer, who plays the Ranger in this film, is not a neophyte. (An yes, he’s a descendant of the the late, rich, and paradoxically Marxist Occidental Petroleum baron Armand Hammer.) But then again, neither is Hammer a superstar at the moment. This makes him almost perfect in a film that both the Disney Studios and particularly co-producer Johnny Depp wanted to control.
Hammer clearly takes a back seat to Depp. But he seems gracious about it for the most part. He’s not a bad actor, and might, in fact be a better leading man than we see in this film. But it’s hard to tell since he doesn’t have a lot of chances to show his heroic chops. So when director Gore Verbinski finally lets Hammer’s character reverse field from chump to champ, it’s a little hard to believe.
Disney’s “Lone Ranger” reboot is ultimately a maddening film. When it’s good, it’s really quite good. But when it’s bad it’s tedious.
Allegedly, Disney is open to a sequel of this film, and, allegedly, Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer have signed up for it. But the current film is a definitive mixed bag, and if it loses money, there may not be a reprise. We mostly had fun watching “The Lone Ranger” most of the time. But your mileage may vary.
Rating: ** (Two stars out of four.)
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.