03 July 2013

“Hi-yo, Silver! Awayzzzzzz…” The Lone Ranger Defeats Insomnia!

The Lone Ranger (2013)
Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Silver, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Helena Bonham Carter.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

At the climax of the new cinematic exploit of the Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski finally busts out his skills at orchestrating thrilling and intricately choreographed action set pieces. He hits viewers with a top-notch closer aboard a train full of silver roaring around a Mousetrap structure of parallel tracks. The sudden eruption of “The William Tell Overture” on the theater sound system stirs listless audience members awake. For a few minutes, The Lone Ranger feels like The Lone Ranger: old-fashioned Western thrills starring one of the great Do-Gooder heroes. A few folks in the audience clap. Some notice they haven’t finished their popcorn.

Then everybody leaves the multiplex to go home and catch up on their nap times, which they never realized they needed.

That’s the most damning criticism I can lob at this new Lone Ranger: I nearly nodded off twice during my screening. I say this as a hardcore fan of the Western genre, a nostalgia monster, and a fellow who has never before fallen asleep during a theatrical showing of a movie. Not even Meet Joe Black. The only other time I came as close to the narcoleptic fit I experienced here was due to an unfortunate application of medicine that carried warnings regarding heavy machinery.

The Lone Ranger is already undergoing a critical whipping, and Johnny Depp’s performance as a bizarre, brain-fizzled Tonto is receiving most of the barbed lashings. Make no mistake, Depp is horrendous in the part, acting as if his performance touchstone was the song “What Made the Red Man Red?” from Disney’s Peter Pan. As this is a Disney movie, maybe they offered Peter Pan to him as a guide. As a producer, Johnny Depp can also shoulder the blame for the way the character was written: a loon who undermines his tragic backstory by being a loon. Compounding Depp’s terrible interpretation is a useless framing story about Tonto in 1933 as a sideshow performer. Somebody involved with the film (cough, Depp, cough) must have wanted to copy Dustin Hoffman from Little Big Man (a fantastic movie, by the way) and feature Depp in weird old-age make-up narrating a flashback. But the framing device does nothing for the film, because there’s no sense that the main events in 1869 come from Tonto’s perspective, or any perspective aside from Hollywood hacks trying to package a summer blockbuster.

But Depp is only a part of the canvas of this catastrophe. It was clear long before the movie came out that his rendition of Tonto was going to be terrible. The surprise is how everything else about The Lone Ranger—aside from the finale and pretty Western photography—rises to Depp’s level of Awful, then doubles down with the Dull, and still Busts. Depp could have at least provided unintentional hilarity as an insane character who spends most of the film trying to feed birdseed to a dead crow on his head. But even this can’t elicit more than a yawn.

The Lone Ranger is a stinker. The trailers and promotional material showed this rattletrap locomotive wheezing toward the station a long time ago, but that still won’t prepare viewers for what a trudge the film turns out to be. The heroic tale of John Reid, a surviving Texas Ranger who dons a mask and rides a white horse to fight evil with the aid of silver bullets, is rendered as two bickering dolts wandering around admittedly attractive Western scenery while the rest of the movie juggles a mishmash of themes about justice blah blah greed blah blah spiritualism blah blah nature blah blah that no one making the movie actually cared about.

And a hero that none of them cared about either. There should be a law that a filmmaker approaching an adaptation of a famous hero should at least like the hero, if not love him or her. There are rare exceptions, such as the subversion of Mike Hammer in 1956’s Kiss Me, Deadly. But that was directed by Robert Aldrich, and geniuses can ignore the laws. Otherwise, if you don’t like the hero, why are you making the movie? The Lone Ranger seems to hate its title character, making him an incompetent who only pulls off his famous trick-shots through accidents. His aversion to killing comes not from his sense of justice (expressed through, no joke, his worship of John Locke’s enlightenment philosophy—hey kids, Disney movie!) but because he doesn’t have enough skill to kill anybody except by luck.
Until the train finale, John “The Lone Ranger” Reid is nobody to cheer; he’s a greenhorn stumbling around with a vengeance quest that even he isn’t that thrilled about. When the Ranger suddenly swoops into action on the back of Silver (the most heroic character in the cast, hence why I gave him top billing), it feels as if the rest of the movie never happened. Abruptly our hero is super-skilled and capable of the most outlandish stunts. Yes, the Lone Ranger should be that talented and heroic—but where was any hint of that during the interminable two hours and ten minutes before? If the filmmakers took the energy of the finale and then re-shot the rest of the movie to match, that would be a film to keep folks awake and maybe even let them leave the theater content.

How much does The Lone Ranger hate The Lone Ranger? When the hero pulls out his catch phrase, “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!”, Tonto tells him to never say it again. Wait a minute, is this Blazing Saddles? Don’t treat your legendary hero as the star of a parody movie to get a cheap laugh. Why not just address the audience directly and say, “Sorry, we just didn’t care”?

Things do happen in The Lone Ranger. Quite a lot of things, but none of them coalesce into an interesting story. The Lone Ranger gets his standard origin: John Reid (an uptight lawyer in this version) accompanies his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger, on a hunt for the gang of the murderous Butch Cavendish (played by ugly scars on actor William Fichtner). Cavendish ambushes the Rangers and wipes them out except for John. Just to rub it in, Cavendish eats the heart of Dan before his brother’s eyes. (Because, Disney!) Tonto, on his own vengeance trail, revives John, who then puts on a mask made from his slain brother’s vest, and meanders listlessly toward getting justice. Complications arise, more villains appear, there’s a conspiracy involving the railroad and starting a war with the Comanches and train-loads of silver. Plus John Reid is in love with his brother’s wife (Ruth Wilson) so the film can have kidnap bait. All the while, a seemingly magical white horse steals scene after scene as the only true hero to be found anywhere.

Aside from an early sequence on a train when Cavendish’s gang frees their boss, the film has little in the way of action until the end. There’s an astonishing amount of nothing taking up screen time: “plot business” and flatline comedy between two leads who have no reason to like each other or team up. The script plays with some thematic ideas about justice needing to wear a mask and nature falling apart (visualized through… wait for it… carnivorous CGI rabbits!), none of which adds up to anything like a story backbone. It feels like a movie made by tossing bits of paper into a bowl with plot points written on them, grabbing a random handful, and then trying to string these scraps together into a screenplay as fast a possible.
My sympathies to second-billed Armie Hammer in his first and only performance as the Lone Ranger. Hammer is a talented performer who was one of the best parts of The Social Network. He might have made an excellent Ranger, and he fits into the Western setting. The actor is really trying; he wants to show us a grand, heroic Lone Ranger. But everything is stacked against Mr. Hammer, and I’m reminded of poor Jason Momoa giving all he had to the 2011 Conan the Barbarian while the movie aggressively undermined him. Perhaps the right heroic movie role will come along for Armie Hammer. If Shane Black can get his Doc Savage project going, I nominate Armie Hammer for the lead.

The Lone Ranger ranks high in visibility among icons of U.S. Culture. But since the 1960s the character has done little aside from simply existing in the popular consciousness. The Ranger lives mostly through radio (where he started) and television, and hasn’t had much time on the big screen. The 1950s television program starring Clayton Moore as the Masked Man and Jay Silverheels as Tonto marks the highpoint of the character’s popularity, when every elementary schoolboy in the U.S. owned a brand-name Lone Ranger cap gun. The TV show branched into two low-budget feature films, The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958), the latter of which sounds like it should co-star Tarzan. (I’d watch a Tarzan and Lone Ranger crossover. Gimmie!) In 1981, taking a cue from the success of the Richard Donner Superman, Universal released the big-budget epic The Legend of the Lone Ranger. The movie flopped spectacularly. Helping dig its grave was the producers’ thickheaded choice to sue former Lone Ranger Clayton Moore to prevent him from making personal appearances as the character. Since Moore was a beloved figure to the Baby Boomers who were supposed to flock to the film with their children in tow, the fan backlash against the new film was intense.

I haven’t seen The Legend of the Lone Ranger since the mid-1990s, and I recall disliking it except for a great John Barry score and the ham of Christopher Lloyd as Cavendish. However, the 1981 film at least tried to make a hero out of the character, and it wouldn’t surprise me if on a repeat viewing I found it more palatable than this incarnation. And The Legend of the Lone Ranger had an actual Native American actor, Michael Horse, playing Tonto. For the love of Zeus, the 1950s television program had an actual Native American actor playing Tonto!

Perhaps the Lone Ranger was never cut out for a blockbuster movie: he’s a child of radio and television, and episodic TV is where he fits most comfortably. However, a 2003 pilot movie failed to get anybody excited about a series. For the far extended future, the only place we will probably get more of the Masked Man will be in the comic book series from Dynamite. I read the first six issues and enjoyed them, but not enough to continue with the run. Folks looking for a Lone Ranger fix should at least seek out the trade paperbacks of the comic before giving any money to the new movie.

Despite all the negatives I have fired at the The Lone Ranger ’13 (and here’s one more: don’t go see it), I will lob Disney a bit more cash above the price of my matinee ticket: I am going to download from iTunes the extended Geoff Zanelli arrangement of Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” It’s ten minutes of old-timey goodness, and it doesn’t require the film to work. Considering what Zanelli does here, Disney should’ve hired him to score the whole film.