Disney’s latest franchise starter (after the critical mass implosion of the ‘Pirates’ saga and the box-office bombs of ‘Prince of Persia’ and ‘John Carter’) is a strange amalgamation of sensational potential, unashamedly bombastic ambitions, and complete stupidity. Attempting to straddle the fine line of action, comedy, and spectacle that propelled ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’ to commercial glory, it fails to recapture the spark that made the first adventure of Jack Sparrow such outstanding cinema – even as a it proves to be solid entertainment.
In the dying days of the wild, wild West, captains of industry have come to tame the frontier with the completion of the transcontinental railway. Aboard one such train is John Reid (Armie Hammer), a newly minted district attorney set on bringing orderly law to the lawless sands. Also aboard is serial murderer Butch Cavendish (William Fitchner), a psychopathic cannibal condemned to hang, as well as another prisoner, Tonto (Johnny Depp), a mysterious Comanche Indian with a secret agenda. When the Cavendish gang derail the train to liberate their captive leader, Reid and Tonto are thrown into an unlikely alliance, their parallel quests for justice ultimately leading Reid to embrace his fate as a mystical avenging angel of the law: The Lone Ranger.
Despite the presence of previous ‘Pirates’ alumni – star Johnny Depp, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and director Gore Verbinski – ‘The Lone Ranger’ never manages to match that first wave of high-seas shenanigans, making the bloated ‘At World’s End’ look retroactively slight in comparison (for reasons too vast to elaborate on here, ‘On Stranger Tides’ will be expunged from the public record). Falling somewhere between ‘Wild Wild West’ in tone and ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ in execution, it shifts wildly in quality and content, remaining stubbornly entertaining even as it falls apart.
‘The Lone Ranger’ is the epitome of clumsy blockbuster storytelling. As needlessly complex as it is unexpectedly straightforward, the script is filled with thin supporting characters (Helena Bonham Carter as a bordello madam is wasted in a cameo) and thematic dead ends. There are solid foundations in the form of Reid’s slow realisation that justice is a personal and abstract concept (not dissimilar to Batman’s grey moral awakening in ‘Batman Begins’), and it’s paired nicely with Tonto’s unexpectedly tragic past. But the threads never come together in a clear, convincing, and ultimately compelling way, sacrificing an original story for sporadic spectacle.
Perhaps in response to his previous deconstruction/celebration of the western genre in the animated ‘Rango’, director Gore Verbinski takes an almost cartoonish approach to the logic, physics, and action of this flesh-and-blood endeavour. At times evoking the vistas of John Ford, at others mimicking the blocking and framing of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, the film is more often a Tex Avery cartoon come to life. The action is ludicrously fake and over-the-top – the comedy undercutting almost every stab at sincerity – but that seems mostly by design. ‘The Lone Ranger’ villains may stop short of twirling their moustaches, but the film is nothing if not a stubborn (and loving) homage to its radio serial source, even as it plays fast and loose with reality. By the time the climactic train-chase rolls round (featuring not one, but two runaway trains) to the sounds of the iconic ‘William Tell Overture’, it’s hard not to cheer.
The film is nothing if not a stubborn (and loving) homage to its radio serial source, even as it plays fast and loose with reality.
Verbinski is one of the strongest visualists working in cinema, and if the fat of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s script (with additional contributions by Justin Haythe) isn’t exactly trimmed, it’s certainly made easier to digest. Imaginatively staged sequences, genuine beauty, and moments of comic poetry lift the film’s direction above the standard blockbuster fare (‘Man of Steel’ lumbers to mind), even if it feels like Verbinski has trod this ground before, and in better stead.
Depp tries hard to distinguish Tonto from his standard eccentric swagger, and even though he feels overly familiar, he remains on the right side of endearing. Armie Hammer, in a bafflingly second-billed role, seems hamstrung by the film’s split focus, but delivers a likable and charming hero-in-training. Given more room to flex his comic muscles, he could well be the matinee-idol match for the increasingly predictable Depp.
2013 has now played host to a pair of films (‘Man of Steel’, as well as ‘Lone Ranger’) wholly concerned with telling the origin of their central protagonists. While other films of their ilk have told an origin story as part of a larger narrative and thematic whole, both ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘Man of Steel’ buck the trend by focusing on the creation of their respective identities at the expense of exploring what those identities actually mean in the context of a story. While diametrically opposed in tone and execution, both conclude with their heroes now complete and fully formed – riding off, as it were, into a proverbial sunset of storytelling possibilities.
Despite proving a more enjoyable mess than ‘Man of Steel’, ‘The Lone Ranger’ remains a middling mess nonetheless – but like the Last Son of Krypton, here’s hoping he lives to ride another day in an undoubtedly superior sequel.