THE LONE RANGER Movie Review: Who Ruined That Masked Man?
It’s very possible we will one day look back at The Lone Ranger and see it as symbolizing the nadir of Hollywood in this decade. It stands for everything wrong with big budget blockbusters right now, except for the fact that Gore Verbinski is pretty good at shooting action. But seriously, put a shaky cam in every action scene and you will have the epitome of all I hate about modern mainstream movies.
Bloated, stupid and unfunny, The Lone Ranger is a movie that seems to be embarrassed of its own source material, a movie that values glibness over any emotion. Unwilling to just degrade The Lone Ranger himself by making him a buffoon, the movie also makes Tonto a gibbering lunatic as well as something of an asshole. These aren’t mismatched buddies - they’re perfectly matched insufferable twits.
Because it’s the 21st century The Lone Ranger is of course an origin story. It hews fairly closely to the accepted ‘canon’ of the 1930s radio show and 1950s TV show, with a group of Texas Rangers hunting for outlaw Butch Cavendish and being ambushed in a canyon. All of the Rangers are killed but one, who was left for dead. This Ranger, nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto, dons a mask so the outlaws think he’s still dead; shooting silver bullets he rides the dusty trails of the West dispensing justice.
The liberties taken are technically small but thematically huge. In this movie The Lone Ranger himself isn't a real Ranger; he’s a city boy book learnin’ type whose brother is actually a badass Texas Ranger. Our ‘hero,’ John Reid, gets deputized just before the posse rides into the canyon ambush. When Tonto calls The Lone Ranger ‘kemosabe,’ his long-known fictional term of affection for his friend, it doesn’t mean ‘trusty scout’ or ‘faithful friend’ as it has been translated in the past. It means ‘wrong brother.’
It’s fitting that the idea of a buffoon taking a mask and being assisted by a minority sidekick is the same concept as Seth Rogen’s spin on The Green Hornet, as it turns out Hornet Britt Reid is the grandson of The Lone Ranger (I’m not making that up. You thought DC Comics invented weird continuity?). But unlike The Green Hornet's capable Kato, Tonto is also a buffoon. It’s one of the strangest approaches to this sort of material I’ve ever seen; it’s like Justin Haythe, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot thought they were writing a new Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder movie. Except Pryor and Wilder liked each other in their bungling team-up movies, and Tonto and The Lone Ranger seem to only stick together because no one else will put up with them.
Johnny Depp particularly embarrasses himself as Tonto, delivering a redface performance that feels like classic cooning. Half of his expressions are pop-eyed stares, and he seems to have a fondness for firewater. He also delivers his ‘jokes’ like a Catskills comic, as if the only Native American he had ever seen on screen was Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. There’s an attempt to give Tonto a tragic backstory, but it just makes him seem like a moron. Which, frankly, he seems to be in the movie.
Armie Hammer comes off better, if only because Hammer is actually trying. He’s saddled with a terrible role - a semi-racist version of The Lone Ranger who despises Tonto, who pulls off trick shots totally by accident and who is creepily in love with his dead brother’s wife. Hammer is possessed of a natural charisma and a surfeit of hunky good looks, but he’s reduced to parodying a hero instead of being one. Why has no one used him correctly since The Social Network? It was one of the great performances of the last decade, and yet he’s getting shoe-horned into roles designed for lunkheaded hunks, not actual actors.
If the two heroes aren’t the heroes, who is? Weirdly, it’s the horse. Silver is presented as the only competent character - sometimes super-competent, as when he magically appears on the roof of a burning barn or standing in the branches of a tree, wearing a jaunty hat (not only is that a real thing, it also happens moments after an entire Indian tribe is massacred with a gatling gun. Comic relief!). Silver is a handsome horse to be sure, but by the end of the film’s punishing two hour plus runtime I was quite sick of seeing him continue to save the day while the heroes were ineffectual at best. This isn’t subversive, it’s boring.
There are a couple of bad guys in the film - of course, because at two hours plus there has to be a winding, convoluted story - with William Fichtner as the main heavy. He has a hideously scarred face and, in true Disney and The Lone Ranger tradition, he eats the flesh of those he kills, including the fucking heart of The Lone Ranger’s brother. Fichtner is fine, even though his prosthetic scar makes half his lines slurred, but the level of violence inherent in the character is off-putting. The Lone Ranger gallops full-speed at the boundaries of PG-13, which is crazy in a property where the lead character’s entire ethos is based on not killing bad guys but just shooting their guns out of their hands. The one time this Lone Ranger tries that he does disarm his opponents - by accident - but then a wooden beam falls on them and crushes their heads in, killing them. The movie’s climactic action sequence has both Tonto and The Lone Ranger doing their own version of Batman Begins’ horrible “I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you” cop-out. I guess it's technically not murder. It's manslaughter, though. You still go to jail for that.
The other villain is Tom Wilkinson, who works for the railroad, the usual lazy bad guy in modern Westerns. Wilkinson is usually so delightful, but here he’s a husk of a character, and by the time he goes full-on bad guy you forget why that turn was supposed to be a shock anyway. Actually, it’s never a shock, as Wilkinson is introduced ogling The Lone Ranger’s brother’s wife, a pretty dead giveaway he’s a sleazeball.
Bringing up the wife makes this a good time to talk about how dismal the women’s roles are in The Lone Ranger. Helena Bonham Carter appears as a one-legged madam who could be easily removed from the film without changing very much at all. Ruth Wilson plays the aforementioned wife, who would be harder to remove from the film. Without her who would be menaced/cry/have to be saved at the end? There are a lot of racial problems with The Lone Ranger (none of which are solved by having Chinese railroad workers call white people dumb), but I hope those don’t get in the way of people torching the film for its terrible female characters. I don’t even feel that I can critique Wilson as a performer because her role is so underwritten, so empty and so useless that Wilson largely drifts past the camera, barely seen. Bonham Carter has been shoved in to give the filmmakers a ‘strong woman’ talking point, but I don’t think they understand what a strong woman actually is.
Most baffling about the monstrosity that is The Lone Ranger is how tedious it is. And I don’t mean tedious in the way that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was, that special Gore Verbinski tedious where he’s just piling betrayal upon reversal upon set piece upon action scene upon change of heart until you simply don’t care anymore. I mean tedious in that it’s straight up boring, with large sections of the film given over to Tonto and The Lone Ranger bickering. The action is sort of sparsely spread out, and the only memorable set piece comes at the very end. By then it’s too late, even if the sequence - two trains weaving in and out of each others’ way on parallel tracks - is cleaner than the sort of Gore Verbinski bullshit that weighed down the last Pirates. The William Tell Overture kicks in - a really, really extended version - and that does the heavy lifting. You’ll have a Pavlovian response to the music and almost think you’re having a good time.
In case the movie itself wasn’t bad enough, Verbinski and the writers wrapped the whole thing in a mortifying flashback structure, where an elderly Tonto - apparently purposefully styled after Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man - is telling the story of The Lone Ranger to a little boy. It’s mortifying for a couple of reasons. One is that Depp is doing his shitty Tonto schtick the whole time, acting confused, stupid and loopy, feeding the stuffed bird on his head constantly. What’s more the whole sequence is set in a sideshow museum, where Tonto is on display as a “Noble Savage” in 1933 (the year The Lone Ranger debuted on the radio). This is Tonto’s fate! The heroic, helpful (in previous incarnations, anyway) Tonto will end his days being gawked at by kids in a traveling circus. It’s a horrible vision for the character’s future. I know that many of the icons of the West ended up in traveling shows, but Jesus Christ, it's Tonto. Give him a happy ending.
That vision of a caged Tonto seems to be in line with what Verbinski and his collaborators were doing with the whole film. This isn’t the work of people who love the character - it’s the work of people who are ashamed of what they are doing, who snark at and pick at the mythos with every possible opportunity. At the end of the film The Lone Ranger sits atop Silver (this is 2013, so we even get an explanation for why he’s named that, by the way) and the mighty beast rears up on his hind legs, rider and steed briefly consumed by the glory of the Western sun and the Ranger cries out, “Hi ho Silver, away!”
And then Tonto looks at him all bug-eyed and says, “Never say that again.”
That’s the last bit of the movie featuring The Lone Ranger - a direct leg sweep at one of the character’s iconic moments. I hate The Lone Ranger as much as The Lone Ranger hates The Lone Ranger.