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After proving himself a crack shot on his first pranky Western, the animated Rango, Gore Verbinski appears not to have had enough ammo left over to score as well with The Lone Ranger, a moderately amusing but very uneven revisionist adventure with franchise and theme park intentions written all over it. Floated conceptually and commercially by another eccentric comic characterization by Johnny Depp, this attempt by Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer to plant the flag for another Pirates of the Caribbean-scaled series tries to have it too many ways tonally, resulting in a work that wobbles and thrashes all over the place as it attempts to find the right groove. There’s enough entertainment value in this vastly overlong extravaganza to put it over commercially, although whether it can reach Pirates levels of profitability and warrant three sequels is another matter.
Without Depp’s willingness to trade in Captain Jack Sparrow’s eyeliner and bejeweled dreadlocks for Tonto’s cracked white face paint and dead crow headgear, no one would have been remotely interested in reviving this vintage radio standby, which clocked 2,956 episodes between 1933 and 1954, and boomer TV favorite, which ran from 1949 to 1957 and also spawned two feature films. A previous try at a big-screen origins story, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, in 1981, was a total bust and the only film ever made by the actor who played the title character, Klinton Spilsbury.
The title notwithstanding, the scenario for the new film, concocted by the Pirates team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio along with Justin Haythe, focuses principally upon Tonto (the Spanish meaning of which is joked about). No doubt cribbing from Arthur Penn‘s Little Big Man (1970), the yarn spun here is related by the surviving centenarian “noble savage” to a white boy in cowboy gear (mask included) in a San Francisco carnival tent in 1933 (nice backdrop here of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction, even if the project wasn’t as far along at this point in time). Looking more like a mummified Christopher Walken than like Depp himself, Tonto, backed by an Old West diorama, the leathery relic responds to the kid’s curiosity by jumping back to the day in 1869 when he met lawman John Reid.
Although Tonto’s sudden springing-to-life in a historical exhibit spurs some tentative initial laughs, Verbinski doesn’t sufficiently set the tone and rules of the game from the outset, the uncertainty over which ripples throughout the film to deleterious effect. What is Tonto telling the kid, a tall tale? A politically corrected version of the conquest of the West as the boy presumably understands it? A confessional about his own misdeeds that led to a very weird life? Just a wild story, the product of an addled mind?
The answer never becomes clear, which encourages the view of just taking it all as a romp, although this isn’t entirely right either, given some of the serious underpinnings. But suddenly we’re on a train, where clean-cut prosecutor Reid (Armie Hammer), flashing a copy of John Locke at the predominantly religious passengers, is delivering to justice notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Another prisoner onboard is Tonto who, once Butch’s gang shows up to free its boss, forcibly gets paired with the righteous lawman on the first of several Bond-sized railway action scenes designed to justify the production’s laying of six miles of track in New Mexico and building two new locomotives so it could all be filmed real rather than with CGI.
Still, it takes nearly an hour of setup for the two to officially become a team. John Reid’s arrival in Colby, Texas, reunites him with his bounty hunter brother Dan (James Badge Dale), whose wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), used to be John’s sweetheart. Lording it over everyone, in a way that all too closely matches the sociopolitical setup in Rango, is railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who anticipates the imminent completion of the cross-country tracks and schemes to take over the whole system himself.
When Tonto’s not around, the personal drama, politics and violence are all played pretty straight, almost as if they’re in a different movie. Dan anoints his brother a Texas Ranger so he can join the posse formed to hunt down Butch. And when the lot of them are gunned down in an ambush (splendidly staged in Canyon de Chelly), the brutality and vivid bullet impact sound effects are sobering. Taking him for dead, Tonto tries to bury John along with the others. But when the resilient big guy comes to, they team up to hunt down the bad guys, with John donning the black eye mask to go along with the big white hat he donned to start the journey.
Several TV episodes’ worth of incident ensues, including Butch’s fiendish grab of the richest silver mine in the West, Latham’s treachery to control the rails and an appealingly tragic revelation of Tonto’s original sin that explains the two black lines running down each side of his face, his outcast status from his people and perhaps why he’s a bit loco. As has been the case onscreen since Little Big Man and occasionally before, the treaty-oblivious U.S. government, the Army and manifest destiny-minded whites are certainly the biggest bad guys. But it’s refreshing to see that part of Depp’s comic shtick here is to deflate the solemn seriousness with which Native American traditions and mysticism are usually enveloped. Sometimes cocking his eyebrow and looking at John to see if he’s buying his latest line of crap, Depp establishes a certain fundamental dignity for Tonto that’s otherwise embellished by nutty detailing, the result of which is neither a truly coherent character nor one as funny as Jack Sparrow sometimes was, at least at the beginning, but most surely registers due to its idiosyncratic strangeness.
The madly handsome Hammer certainly delivers the Ranger’s requisite rectitude and straight-arrow determination, but the balance between full-on hero and camp figure teeters at times, a problem symptomatic of Verbinski’s difficulty in finding the right pitch for the project as a whole. Perhaps Rango was liberating in that working in animation freed the director from realistic constraints, thus giving him confidence to unleash the wild, wacky and surreal impulses that lifted that surprising work comically and visually. There are moments of absurdist humor here, as when Tonto and the Ranger find themselves buried in the ground up to their chins and the former advises his partner not to get an itch on his nose, whereupon they find themselves covered with scorpions, but the devil-may-care attitude of the director’s last film is significantly diluted here.
The bloat factor also weighs in after the two-hour mark, at which point there’s yet another half-hour to go. Still, the average length of the Pirates films was 149 minutes, precisely the duration of The Lone Ranger, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Bruckheimer & Co. decided on this as their ideal running time.
Along with the intermittent bubbling humor and appealing leads, there are certainly other pleasures to be had. Despite the Texas setting, most of the film has the appearance of taking place in Monument Valley and other locations — Crede, Moab, Shiprock, Lone Pine and various spots in New Mexico — have been superbly chosen for great scenic value. Real trains are certainly far preferable to digitally generated ones and Hans Zimmer‘s score, which at a few points teases out echoes of one of Ennio Morricone‘s key themes for One Upon a Time in the West, is full-bodied and supportive. Rossini’s trademark “William Tell Overture” is saved for the big-action climax.
Furthermore, Fichtner (with the help of some highly creative makeup work by Depp’s personal makeup ace Joel Harlow) serves up a first-rate villain, a genuinely bad guy with a messed up mouth and a brain that doesn’t miss a trick. Wilkinson is also strong, if more conventionally duplicitous, while Helena Bonham Carter seems to be hobbling in from another movie altogether in her brief appearance as a red-headed madame with a gun in her peg leg.
Opens: July 3 (Disney)
Production: Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Blind Wink, Infinitum Nihil
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper, Bryant Prince, Mason Cook, JD Cullum, Saginaw Grant, Harry Treadway, James Frain
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriters and screen story: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski
Executive producers: Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Johnny Depp, Eric Ellenbogen, Eric McLeod
Director of photography: Bojan Bazelli
Production designers: Jess Gonchor, Crash McCreery
Costume designer: Penny Rose
Editors: Craig Wood, James Haygood
Music: Hans Zimmer
Visual effects supervisors: Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich
PG-13 rating, 149 minutes
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