Just a few months ago, Quentin Tarantino was showing us exactly how you can update the old Western for a modern audience. However, it would show questionable parenting skills if you happily took your 10 year old with you to enjoy the bloody revenge saga. So this can only mean there is a gap in the market for a good, old fashioned family friendly narrative set in the Wild West, right? Well maybe but even if audiences were crying out for a new cowboy hero it certainly can’t have been the Lone Ranger. The original radio series started in 1933 and the television show was popular in the 50s. Not exactly the typical Disney demographic. Nobody has been patiently waiting for this character to get a new outing and, quite frankly, it was always going to be difficult to translate it for a modern world. This isn’t like getting the same freedom you would making a film out of a pirate theme park ride. With something like the Lone Ranger you are forced to stick to certain traditions… even the questionably racist ones. You have to ask who exactly were Disney creating this film for.
Although the answer to that is painfully obvious: Johnny Depp. After director Gore Verbinski put the idea into his head that he could play the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick there was no stopping him. We sat on the sidelines of a production full of drama with its apparently limitless budget, expanding schedule and almost free reign for one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. It’s a horrible example of everything that’s wrong with the industry: throwing money, CGI and big names together with the aim to make nothing more than a bucket load of cash. I’ll admit there was always a part of me that hoped this film would fail as it might start a chain of events to change all that. It is with only a slight amount of joy that it seems my wish was granted. The Lone Ranger was torn apart by critics and opened to disappointing numbers in America. So have audiences simply fallen out of love with Johnny Depp or was it that the Lone Ranger, unlike other recent rebooted franchises, simply has no place in the heart of a modern audience?
The Lone Ranger, in the current cinematic tradition of origin stories, sets out to provide an insight into the histories of John Reid (played by Armie Hammer), the Texas lawyer who is about to become better known as the heroic Lone Ranger, and his devoted sidekick, Tonto. This back-story is clumsily placed within a framing narrative that takes place years later in 1933 as a young Lone Ranger fan is touring a museum in San Francisco. He wanders through the various Wild West exhibits before stopping to look at a dummy portraying ‘The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat’. This dummy comes to life before his very eyes and, after orchestrating a swap to get his hands on the boy’s bag of nuts, reveals himself to be none other than Tonto (Johnny Depp in really terrible old man make-up). The elderly Tonto goes on to explain how he came to meet the Lone Ranger and, in doing so, reveal the story of the man behind the mask. This narrative, whilst not terrible, is probably fairly unnecessary. It adds little to film aside from the reference to 1933 and the year the radio series was first broadcast. If anything it just raises more questions. I mean what is Tonto doing there anyway? Am I meant to believe that a museum in San Francisco would hire the ex-sidekick of a legendary defender of justice to simply stand still for hours? Or is the director suggesting that they actually have possession of a magic Tonto mannequin? In reality the framing narrative is a way of giving Tonto more of a pivotal role and ensuring that the proceeding 36 hours of film (oh sorry was it actually only 149 minutes?) is as much (if not more) about the second fiddle as it is about the masked horseman himself.
As unnecessary as it may be, I don’t wish to suggest that this framing device is to blame for the painfully long running time. Really it adds as little to the length of the film as it does to anything else. No, the main problem is the same thing that was to blame for the messy production: self indulgence. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a big budget blockbuster that has such an inflated sense of self importance before. Verbinski can discuss as many of his cinematic influences as he wishes but, the fact is, this film takes far too long to get to where it’s going. It is always nice in an action packed blockbuster to have quieter moments to regroup and calm everything down but Verbinski is so keen to give his audiences time to breath that you could easily believe he’s found a way to make every second last for at least 2 minutes.
Then again this sedate storytelling would be less of a chore to sit through if we were dealing with a leading pair that had any kind of on screen chemistry. At times it feels as though Hammer and Depp were making two different films and, in an effort to create a final product, the two were simply stuck together during post-production. On the one hand, you have Hammer getting very little to do except talk about how much he loves the law, wear a mask, ride a horse, and do stupid things so Tonto can admonish him all the time. For a film that steals his name for its title, the Lone Ranger is quite clearly an after thought. Even the vaguely interesting moments, like his brother’s death and his love for his sister-in-law, are not given as much focus as they deserve. I’ve seen a fair amount of criticism for Hammer but I think he does the best he can with the material he was given. No longer the brilliant hero but instead something functional and horribly predictable.
There was never any point in pretending that this film was ever going to be primarily concerned with the man it should have been about. This was Depp’s show and he was the only one that mattered. Perhaps if Verbinski had gone down the Eddie Murphy route Depp could have played every character and the Lone Ranger would have ended up with more to do? To give him his dues, Depp is pretty strong in the role and provides a great deal of the films humour. Although, no matter how many comparisons you make to Tonto and Buster Keaton to distract people it will always be slightly uncomfortable to think that Depp is playing a Native American. He can bring up any number of Native American ancestors to justify it and discuss wanting his performance to bring about some form of justice as much as he wants. The fact remains that watching Johnny Depp parading around doing his best Captain Jack style performance whilst wearing a dead bird on his head and speaking in broken pidgin English doesn’t feel quite right. I understand that Depp has worked (I was initially going to write hard here but thought that statement was a bit too bold) to make Tonto a well-rounded character and give him a back-story of his own, which is a fantastic idea in theory. Making Tonto the driving force and brains behind the double act is a interesting idea but to suggest that Depp’s performance will erase years of misrepresentation is insanity. Coincidentally ‘insanity’ is also the answer to the question ‘how exactly does Depp flesh out the character?’ I can already feel the old wounds healing nicely.
This is a film that, like its co-stars, just doesn’t gel. It’s pretty schizophrenic to be honest. At times it tries to be the typical Disney children’s film full of immature humour and horses appearing in trees (seriously what were they thinking when it came to that fucking horse?). The next moment focuses on a man ripping out and eating the heart of his nemesis. So what is this film? Is it a big budget family film, a dark and gruesome tale of life in the Wild West, a romance or is it a campaign to fight the wrongs done to Native Americans? Well why bother deciding on just one theme when you can cram it all in together. This film changes tone quicker than the guy Katy Perry was singing about in Hot n Cold changes his mind for fucks sake. It tries to master everything yet barely succeeds in establishing a single idea. Forever fighting against itself and never quite reaching anything it strives to be for fear of pushing it too far away from everything else.
With a shorter running time and a much clearer focus I’m almost certain that this film would have been given a warmer welcome by both critics and audiences alike. For there are some things to actually get excited about here. The rest of the cast come across fairly well during the rare moments when Depp ceases to be the main focus on screen. Helen Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, and William Fichtner are all given a small amount of space to show their considerable talents but they, like the criminally underused Ruth Wilson, deserved to get more material to really get to grips with their characters.
On top of this, the film is as beautiful to watch as you would expect a film that has had so much money thrown at it to be. The backdrop is the most pure and traditional Western setting and becomes a key character in its own right. It’s amazing and the design is just exquisite. Added to that are some rather exciting action sequences including not one but two train showdowns. If you ignore some of the more questionable computer generated moments (for example the rooftop ride of the masked avenger on horseback which stood out as some of the worst CGI around at the moment) the final chase, set to Hans Zimmer’s reworking of The William Tell Overture, is pretty darn good. If Verbinski had focused on more moments like this instead of padding out the story with excess detail and history this film would have been the ideal Summer blockbuster.
So all in all not quite the horrible mess that I was hoping for but there is no doubt that this film is really far from perfection. An overly long, confused and egotistical film whose impressive backdrop and allusions to the past are not enough to push a mediocre narrative out of the shadows. If a film’s basic function is to entertain then The Lone Ranger, despite a selection of impressive set pieces and performances, doesn’t always manage to deliver let alone surpass this primary aim. Whilst I’m still unconvinced that The Lone Ranger needed to be made, this film has suggested that in the hands of better film-makers the source material could have been crafted into a Western feast for all the family to enjoy.