When Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp first joined forces, they achieved a minor miracle by somehow turning a theme park ride into one of the most successful summer blockbusters of all time.
Yet, their latest collaboration might even be a more risky proposition than Pirates Of The Caribbean. Armed with one of the biggest budgets ever thrown at a blockbuster (even after the director, star, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer took substantial pay cuts to make things reasonable) the duo attempted not just to revive the Western genre for Disney’s kiddie crowd, but also The Lone Ranger, a semi-superhero who went out of style along with radio drama. Yet, somehow against all odds they’ve delivered a surprisingly clever and entertaining Cowboys and Indians epic that should please the Western nostalgic parents as much as children. Sure it’s far too long for a popcorn flick and is stuffed with more ideas, subplots, and framing devices than the editors knew what to do with. But once again Depp and Verbinski have taken an idea that shouldn’t work and turned it into A-grade summer entertainment (and that’s even after they seemed to forget how to pull off that trick in the Pirates sequels…shudder).
Weirdly, the film opens not in the Ole West, but in a traveling funfair where a little boy sees a wax statue of an elder native come to life. It is, of course, Johnny Depp under ten pounds of old age make up who claims to be Tonto and is somehow still alive. Just when your brain starts to work out that concept, a voice-cracking old man Depp starts recalling the origin of The Lone Ranger and the film really kicks off. Armie Hammer (he of the Social Network Wilklevi twins fame) stars as a prissy city boy obsessed with the letter of the law who allows a scar-faced Western baddie (William Fichtner chewing up his face/the scenery) to escape from a massive train siege because he just can’t stand rule breaking. Hammer’s classic cowboy sheriff brother (James Badge Dale) doesn’t approve and nor does the Native American hanger-on Tonto (Depp, not in old age make up, but in a ridiculous headdress…naturally). Eventually Hammer ends up an outcast in the desert, who is trained by Depp to wear a mask and fight for good outside of corrupt laws. Soon Depp is introducing Hammer’s Lone Ranger (why he’s called “lone” when he clearly has a sidekick is once again ignored) to Western eccentrics like Helen Bonham Carter’s ivory-shotgun-legged brothel mistress and pits them up against a prototypical evil American businessman (played by evil American businessman specialist Tom Wilkinson) who wants to take over the country like a lazy game of Monopoly: by claiming the railways. Did I mention that Wilkinson is also in cahoots with William Fichtner who is also a cannibal? Jeez, those are bad guys who need to be stopped. Thank goodness for the Lone Ranger and Tonto, right?
So, that’s a lot of plot for one movie, too much even and certainly you’ll feel the full 149 minutes pass. However, chances are you’ll also have a pretty good time sitting through it. Verbinski proved to have a deep love of Westerns in Rango and clearly relishes the chance to craft a big ol’ live action Western here. The barren landscapes are shot in beautifully composed widescreen frames, filled with meticulously designed sets n’ costumes. Oh sure there are CGI enhancements, but for the most part Verbinski shoots actual horses, stunt men, and trains for show-stopping action scenes that are pants-fillingly thrilling to watch. He also crams the movie full of loving quotes and references to Western masters like Sergio Leone, John Ford, Ennio Morricone, and more obscure movies like Little Big Man (that’s where the unnecessary old man make-up wrap-around comes in). Verbinski also gently mocks and reinvents the Lone Ranger mythos, depicting the origin of the mask, Silver, and even the Lone Ranger/Tonto relationship in new and amusing ways (the William Tell Overture and “High-ho Silver, away!” line are saved for the last 15 minutes and used in unexpected, applause-worthy ways). You wouldn’t think something as blatantly commercial as a Lone Ranger blockbuster could possible qualify as a passion project for any filmmaker, but clearly that was the case for Verbinski and watching the overgrown kid literally play with the world’s most expensive train-set is a delight. Sure, it’s as overdone, over-long, and over-the-top as his Pirates movie, but at least it’s always in the name of fun unlike his Pirates sequels.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Verbinski has an incredible cast in the center of the finest Western spectacle over $300 million can buy. Armie Hammer is perfectly cast in this somewhat put-upon Lone Ranger. Hammer understands the film’s self-conscious tone well enough to know he should play things straight and sincere for maximum comedic effect and is so good that he’ll hopefully be headlining more blockbusters soon. Johnny Depp probably ladles a little too much Jack Sparrow eccentricity onto Tonto, but still delivers the type of amusingly unpredictable work that made him a superstar. Helen Bonham Carter brings the brand of cracked characterization that made her Tim Burton’s go-to star/wife, James Badge Dale finds the traditional matinee idol charm this reluctant Lone Ranger avoids, Barry Pepper continues his streak of sporting the finest faux-facial hair in Hollywood (plus his acting ain’t too shabby either), and Tom Wilkinson does the gentle/sleazy Tom Wilkinsony villain thing well. Yet, the real stand out in the cast might be longtime character actor William Fichtner, whose snarling cannibalistic black hat cowboy is one of the most sickeningly entertaining blockbuster villains in a while. It’s a cast far better than a summer blockbuster deserves and all of them earn their inflated paychecks with performances that add the gravity and comedy often missing from the screenplay.
There’s no sense in denying that The Lone Ranger is a flawed movie. It is at least a half hour too long with a thoroughly unnecessary framing device and wonky dramatic structure that should have been ironed out through another draft of the screenplay or round in the editing room. However, when the movie works it’s such a funny, thrilling, bizarre, dark, and downright entertaining Western revival that it’s hard not to be seduced. Verbinski and co. clearly cared enough to take big risks with their movie (for one thing it must be the first Disney movie with prostitution, child murder, and cannibalism) not normally seen in glossy blockbuster season and yet still ensure that above all else their flick is a wild ride. The movie deserves to be a big hit, but whether or not that will happen is a reasonable question. After all, kids could care less about Westerns, Depp is coming off a pair of bombs, and the adult audience of Western nostalgics are unlikely to believe that a massive Lone Ranger reboot could possibly work. Yet, somehow it does work and works rather wonderfully. If you’ve got a sweet tooth for the Western genre, it’s a must see (the flick has almost has as many Spaghetti Western references as Django Unchained). If you’ve got a child who doesn’t understand the joy of Westerns, this is a good way of force-feeding it to him/her. I know it might be hard to believe that The Lone Ranger actually works, but trust me. No one was more skeptical of a movie than I, and I left the theatre with a goofy satisfied grin so large that it was embarrassing.