There’s a scene in The Lone Ranger in which Tonto (Johnny Depp) hooks our unconscious title character to the back of a horse, pauses while the horse excretes a pile of dung, and then knowingly proceeds to drag our hero through that pile of feces. This is the level of comedy you can expect from this film, a western that’s overstuffed, devoid of humor, achingly boring, and insufferably long. Watching The Lone Ranger isn’t quite as bad as being dragged through a pile of crap for two and a half hours, but at times it starts to feel that way.
The film opens in 1933 San Francisco at a traveling carnival, where a young boy dressed as the Lone Ranger wanders into an old west exhibit. At a station marked “The Noble Savage,” he comes across a wax sculpture of an elderly Tonto, who suddenly comes alive and tells the wide-eyed boy the entire origin story of the titular hero. Randomly, the film will jump back to this “current” time period, to have the kid ask idiotic questions and show Johnny Depp’s loony reaction in old-man makeup. Like the film as a whole, this framing device is dumb and totally unnecessary.
(Where’s the Lone Ranger in 1933? Why is Tonto living with a traveling circus? How long was he standing there posing before the boy came along? Would he have stayed posed if other customers had walked by? TO WHAT END? These questions – and plenty more – are never answered.)
We flashback to the mid-1800s, when clean-cut law student John Reid (Armie Hammer) is returning to his small Texas hometown by train. In chains in the prisoner car are Tonto (now a much younger Depp) and Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who you know is the bad guy because A) he’s very dirty, B) he has a nasty scar on his face, and C) he’s played by William Fichtner. Oh yeah, and he eats people’s hearts. We’ll get to that. The first of many outlandish action setpieces gets underway when Cavendish’s men stage a train robbery with Butch as the prize, leading to an unlikely pairing of Reid and Tonto, who end up chained together and somehow survive a preposterous crash. This is a Jerry Bruckheimer action beat if there ever was one, and though the man was once responsible for producing some of the most fun action movies of all time, it seems he’s lost all sense of what makes a coherent story and now concentrates entirely on making sure everything he makes looks like a Bruckheimer film. I’m convinced he’s a large part of the problem with why this movie is so terrible; look at his filmography over the past few years and you’ll see what I mean.
Through huge chunks of time riddled with dreadfully boring exposition, we find out Tonto and Cavendish are old enemies, there’s an evil railway man (Tom Wilkinson) at the center of a land grab scheme who exploits a rift in relations between the Comanche tribe and the more “civilized” folk, and John must avenge his brother’s (James Badge Dale) death by bringing Cavendish to justice and getting the girl (Ruth Wilson). There’s a magical horse who wears a white hat and drinks beer by the bottle, a band of mystical piranha-rabbits that eat one of their own, and Helena Bonham Carter as a madam with a gun built into her leg. If there was any sense of joy to be found, these things would be much easier to swallow, but because the film takes itself far too seriously and can’t seem to figure out a consistent tone to lean on, it all feels dry and uninspired.
If you’ve seen Rango, you know that Verbinski has an excellent grasp on the western genre. That film is full of life and throws out some fun homages to the genre while also being an entry into it. But here, he’s a slave to a truly moronic script by Pirates writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and Snitch writer Justin Haythe that references other westerns but doesn’t seem to give a crap about its central character. Hammer’s John Reid never really does anything heroic, and saving the girl (and her annoying son) barely counts; the film’s love story is not only shoehorned in and completely ineffectual, it’s also disgusting. John has a history with this woman (she matters so little her character’s name escapes me), but she ended up marrying his brother years prior when John went off to study law. His brother’s body is essentially still warm when the two share a kiss, and the whole subplot just comes off as an uncomfortable and unfortunate screenwriting choice.
In general, I really like Armie Hammer. I think he’s a guy who has clear leading man potential, and anyone who’s seen him in The Social Network knows he has some great dramatic chops. I totally understand why he’d want to take the lead role in a project like this. He gets to play a lead character and work with Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer – breaks don’t get much bigger than that. But he’s (excuse the pun) saddled with one of the dumbest scripts of the summer, and regardless of how much money you throw at a project (a rumored $215 million for this project, without taking marketing costs into account) I don’t think anyone could have come out of this mess unscathed. Hammer is fine, but the character he’s playing is a joke, bumbling around and accidentally getting things done (like when he kills two guys with a single shot, which is played for laughs) until all of a sudden, he’s some sort of legendary badass. Why? Because the script required it at the end. There’s no character development, he doesn’t learn anything, and he never earns anything. Some hero.
Johnny Depp reportedly took this role because he wanted to portray a Native American in a way that wouldn’t be stereotypical or racist, but despite Depp’s intentions, his Tonto is an amalgamation of Native American stereotypes: he talks to animals, speaks in three word broken English sentences, and constantly tries to feed a dead bird he wears on his head. That’s not racist, it’s just stupid. He makes the same spazzy reaction faces that he made famous as Captain Jack Sparrow, likely intending for children to laugh in response. I’m guessing they’ll still be horrified by seeing the bad guy stab a wounded Dan Reid in the stomach, reach into his guts, pull the heart from under his ribs, and eat it in front of our protagonist. This film has no idea who its audience is.
For the most part, Verbinski shoots action his sequences clearly. But for a movie with a two and a half hour running time, there are far too few of them – the film is bookended with a few big setpieces, but they feel like scenes ripped from the Fast & Furious movies, with characters leaping back and forth between two parallel runaway trains and surviving hilariously physics-defying jumps without a scratch. Those scenes only work in the Fast films because they’ve established a world in which Vin Diesel and Co. are essentially superheros. The Lone Ranger – ostensibly more of a superhero than anyone who’s just really good at driving a Nissan – doesn’t get his due until the climactic showdown, and by then it’s too late: we don’t care that he’s riding a horse on top of a moving train, we just want to get the hell out of Dodge. Until next time…
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