The Lone Ranger
(MILD SPOILERS) Johnny Depp was somewhat disingenuous to suggest that the critics were responsible for The Lone Ranger going belly-up. Anyone who has seen a Transformers movie knows they rarely prevent the viewing public from seeing just what they/we want to see, regardless of presumed quality. But it raises the question; in a summer wall-to-wall with disappointments (in that, in almost every case, there was real potential on display that was ultimately squandered) why did this one get singled out for such venom? It would be overly dismissive to suggest The Lone Ranger’s status as a disaster simply became a unfairly repeated meme but I wonder why Pacific Rim has been praised to the heavens, the corniest Hollywood product in many a year, while Depp and co have been crucified. Perhaps it’s just their turn.
Which is prelude to saying that I liked The Lone Ranger. I’m quite conscious of its myriad deficiencies, but some movies refuse to cow to normal critical faculties. We all have them; some term them guilty pleasures, but I don’t think any of us should feel guilty for going against the grain. Okay, maybe you should with Norbit. The difficulty comes in trying to defend it if all you can come up with is “Well, I liked it (shrugs)”. I had this reaction last year with Prometheus. I can’t disagree with most of the criticisms I’ve read or heard of that movie. But I still like it, dammit! In this review I’ll probably mention far more issues I had with The Lone Ranger than things I rated, but that’s the antithetical nature of such appreciation.
So why did it flop? It’s certainly an argument that the unchecked hubris of its production, in spite of all the warning signs and naysaying those who heard about its outrageous price tag (“How could a western cost so much? It’s insane”), probably needed to borne out by commercial failure. But it can’t just be put down to bad buzz surrounding it ever since Disney slammed on the breaks in order to slash the out-of-control budget. It may not send off great signals to the public at large, but then the similarly afflicted World War Z has broken the $500m barrier in gross with the handicap of a similarly engulfing shitstorm.
You could blame the publicity, which was shockingly formulaic (even the most obviously rousing device, the use of the William Tell Overture, had to be pre-empted by youtube overdub of the first official trailer), but that can’t be the whole story.
The readiest explanation is that this is one old property that remains musty and unattractive even with a lick of new paint. Pirates of the Caribbean had very little in the way of baggage; it only needed to make people interested in a pirate movie (and after Cuthroat Island and Pirates, that certainly wasn’t a done deal), but it could plough it’s own furrow of inventiveness. All that was set in stone was the title of the Disney ride. The Lone Ranger is the product of a bygone age, a pre-Batman Batman, and it’s a tough sell in an age where chivalry and (relative) non-violence is undesirable (and unprofitable; the Dark Knight may not kill people, but he’ll do everything but). Particularly in the case of the latter; this is a summer where even Superman snaps someone’s neck. It was only a year ago that another adaptation of a precursor to the blockbuster age crashed and burned. Remember John Carter, the hero whom Star Wars and every sci-fi fantasy movie hence owed a debt to? It seemed a bit passé (I liked Carter, but it couldn’t feel inspired after informing all those wunderkinds). This may not bode well for Doc Savage, but if anyone can make it work it’s Shane Black.
You can see Pirates regulars Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, and co-scribe Justin Haythe, struggling with the task of freshening the series’ staple ingredients and not really succeeding. Tonto's self-conscious "Never do that again" in response to the "Hi-ho, Silver" signature cry is telling enough that this is a slightly uncomfortable reimagining. Tonto’s reconfiguration is (mostly) an anarchic success (as long as you’re on board with Depp doing daffy). But John Reid’s intentional starchiness only serves to highlight the character’s antiquatedness. The original show brandished a too-good-to-be true hero in an idealised, fantasy vision of the Wild West. So it’s understandable that the writers of the movie opted to transplant his wholesome values to a grittier environment, one where they are laughably inappropriate. I’m not too concerned about the perceived insult of making Reid a fake; a law school graduate only seconded to the Texas Rangers at short notice. The other features of his genesis are loosely accurate, excepting that he and Tonto first pair up before his rebirth. It would surely have smacked of the worst of Hollywood’s obsession with interconnectedness to carry over Tonto and Reid having first encountered each other as boys (found in the TV show), so it’s no shame to lose that backstory.
But making Reid a bit of a goof tends to undermine the movie’s appetite for thrills. You don’t believe in his abilities as a hero, and the makers indulge in too much repetition. You can only have so many encounters where he shows off his high moral principles by not killing the bad guy (or preventing Tonto from killing him), only for said bad guy to escape, before it becomes a bit wearisome. The writers haven’t put enough effort into varying the beats in such scenes, and they don’t enable Reid to become the Lone Ranger; we never really feel he’s earned his mask.
Armie Hammer dutifully delivers the performance that is called of him. Which is the full preppy thing; Hammer must be the most English public school boy American actor ever anyway, and this will do nothing to dispel that feeling. He and Depp have an easy sparring chemistry, but he’s constantly on the back foot (there’s a scene where Reid escapes Helena Bonham Carter’s brothel by miraculously leaping onto his horse, galloping away and hoisting Tonto onto the back, and you wonder where this hitherto unseen dexterity comes from). Hammer’s Ranger is in no way the sorry disaster of shlubby Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet, but there’s a similar tendency to misjudge the balance between comedy and heroism.
Also misjudged is the love story, in part because it is completely superfluous. And a little bad taste. James Badge Dale, who has spent the last year essaying a series of memorable cameos in major movies, delivers another as Reid’s brother Dan, the real Texas Ranger. But, wouldn’t you know it, John and Dan’s wife Rebecca (Luther’s Ruth Wilson in a nothing role she can do nothing with) were sweethearts when they were younger. It’s not that their feelings for each other are objectionable, but that their grief for Dan is forgotten in an instant for the sake of a clichéd clinch (given the conclusion, it seems an entirely pointless diversion; but hey, they’ve ticked the romance box). And, while the young whippersnapper playing Rebecca’s son (Bryant Pierce) gives a reasonable performance, he’s yet another unnecessary character (and there’s not even a hint of the masterful hero-child bonding we saw earlier this summer in Iron Man Three).
Of course, if you’re tired of Johnny's shtick (and many seem to be, or at least those who are, are very vocal about it) The Lone Ranger will do nothing to change your mind. I wouldn’t even say I’m an apologist for Depp; he can make whatever cartoonish role choices he wants as far as I’m concerned. Invariably, I’m entertained by the results. I don’t even begrudge his over-devotedness to Tim Burton (Willy Wonka is one case where his mugging left me cold, though).
Tonto is more contained, and much less drunk, than Jack Sparrow; where Jack would indulge in florid verbiage, Tonto’s humour comes from deadpan brevity. And his unneeded (again!) backstory provides him with a motivation that Depp et al probably felt distinguished him from being Sparrow in Monument Valley. But both share an intimacy with the audience, a tendency to make asides or gestures for our benefit, and most of all an antic disposition combined with a Keatonesque slapstick dexterity (I particularly like the business where he exchanges tokens of value as he “robs” the dead). When he makes John Reid’s life a misery (or drags him through horseshit), mostly you agree that the Lone Ranger-in making deserves it (if I was partial to the character, I would probably condemn all this as sacrilegious). Depp’s a master of the tableau pose, and his reactions result in many of the movie’s high points, be it beneath trains, atop vertiginous ladders aboard trains or buried up to his neck. It’s also worth noting that in an age of steroidal stars he’s an actor who is commendably disinterested in pumping himself to the max (I mention this only because he spends the movie stripped to the waist.
There has been a range of discussion over whether Depp should have taken the role of Tonto, what with his indefinite Native American ancestry. This has also come up in respect of Keanu and the Christmas release 47 Ronin (but both cases seem like spot-on casting when sat next to Joel Edgerton playing Ramases in Ridley Scott’s forthcoming epic-by-numbers Exodus). I don’t have a strong opinion, either way. I do feel that Depp makes the character his own and so, because its Depp, Tonto’s traditional broken English is merely an affectation of his latest cray-zee character. I’m not sure it would fly if a wholly Native American actor had been cast (but then, this would be academic as the film wouldn’t have been made). Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in the TV series, was not keen on the character’s limited vocabulary. Understandably, since it lends itself to the “savage” categorisation; Tonto in the movie is repeatedly referred to in this way, and the makers go to some lengths to shine a harsh light on the “civilisers” as the real savages.
Indeed, this The Lone Ranger is quite untempered in expressing rounded disgust for “stupid white men” (just missing the expletive there to be a direct quote from Depp’s earlier, masterpiece, western Dead Man). For a blockbuster, at any rate. They are consistently stupid, greedy and/or gutless. There are two westerns in particular that this movie blatantly draws inspiration from, and one of them is Little Big Man. The Lone Ranger isn’t quite as persistent in lambasting the genocidal tendencies of the white settlers, partly because it is more unified in tone and partly because it doesn’t have the polemicised tendencies of Arthur Penn’s Vietnam era picture. But both movies feature white actors as substitutes for the Native American viewpoint and both show an undisguised disdain for the US Cavalry. Verbinski’s montage of the Cavalry’s massacre of a tribe of attacking Comanches is possibly too-crude a visualisation of the wider destruction of an entire people and culture, but this is the wrong movie for anything other than broad strokes.
Barry Pepper’s Captain Fuller makes a stronger impression than the main villains because he is revealed to be so weak of resolve, and there’s more than a little of Richard Mulligan’s Custer in Little Big Man to his performance. I found this unrelenting tone largely commendable, for what is sold as a crowd-pleaser, and it’s the closest any of the blockbusters this summer has come to a subtext (Star Trek Into Darkness just seemed confused and garbled in its commentary on the War on Terror). I suspect Depp was acutely aware of the minefield he was crossing in taking the role, and so used his clout to carry through this thematic content. The trick is pulled off is because, through the prism of his cartoon persona you can take or leave it. But it’s there nonetheless. And even then, it’s surprising that there’s no hint of apologising or revisionism (unless you want to vilify Depp’s casting), where you would expect it to be focus-grouped to ineffectuality (indeed, one plot twist might suggest the writers have gone too far in the opposite direction).
The Lone Ranger is also wants to tackle environmental themes, an area it integrates more successfully into the borderline fantasy tone. The plunder of the landscape for precious materials, or its wholesale destruction (in the name of industrialisation and progress) are at the core of the plot. Tonto’s fractured perspective is a direct result of the influence of European greed. And it’s this greed that is personified in both outward civility (Tom Wilkinson’s railroad entrepreneur Cole) and depravity (William Fichtner’s cannibalistic Butch Cavendish). Silver, the pale horse, comes as a harbinger of a world out of balance, one where resurrection is required (making Reid a slightly inept Christ figure) to restore order. The trope of Indian mysticism is generally undercut, as are clichéd devices such as the wise sage. This is doubtless a good move, as generally it proves patronising rather than endearing. When it does surface, it tends to reinforce the film’s central themes and marries with the tonal absurdity rather than feel forced.
There’s a scene where a colony of cute ickle CGI bunnies bare pointy teeth and descend carnivorously on a piece of meat it seems completely random, and the first thing that comes to mind is the buffoonery of Lucasfilm’s gophers in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But there’s method to the Verbinski and co’s madness. To be honest, the film suffers from reining in the preposterous. The greatest strength of his Pirates sequels (and I know many would claim there are none) was the willingness to push the envelope of mainstream movies towards the positively surreal. The sequence in At World’s End where Captain Jack is lodged in a hallucinatory purgatory is a piece of unhinged genius, and Rango has a similar skewed viewpoint. The Lone Ranger should have gone further in this direction; if it had, it might have succeeded as a strange blockbuster brother to Jarmusch’s Dead Man. (Apparently one of the threads that was cut in the budget wrangling was the wendigo discussed by Tonto (in reference to Butch); full-blown werewolves were set to feature, which would have allied the movie even more with Pirates’ supernatural goings-on. The were-rabbits, by way of Monty Python, seem to be a vestige of that.)
A contingent of werewolves might have lent the villains a bit more edge. Tom Wilkinson is a fine actor, but he struggles to make an impression with rote villainy. I didn’t find him especially engaging in Batman Begins either. And William Fichtner is also undercut by the requirements of standard issue malignancy. It’s difficult for Fichtner not to steal the show from whoever he’s sharing the screen with. He’s why the opening of The Dark Knight is so gripping, and he’s also why Drive Angry is half watchable. If a film like that, so marginal in intelligence, is able to serve him a memorable villain, it is all the more disappointing that Butch is defined by his visual scarring rather than his charisma. Fichtner thrives on roles with wit and intelligence, and those piercing eyes of his. Douse him under a mountain of prosthetics and his oozing evil becomes one-note.
Speaking of Fichtner, whose human heart-munching psychopath is on the unfettered side, I’ve read comments suggesting the level of violence in what is a 12/PG-13 movie somehow sets a new bar for what those ratings will allow. I’m not sure that’s true. It’s certainly on the strong side, but it pulls back from actually showing its scalpings and organ removal (kind of; Verbinski uses the device of reflected action. Butch’s operation and ingestion are shown in Reid’s eye. This is something Bond made a feature of on several occasions). There’s nothing here stronger or more unsettling than what we see in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or The Dark Knight.
The Lone Ranger’s biggest problem is that someone needed to stand over Verbinski (or even earlier, at the script stage) and tell them when to cut. Longer is not always better, but it seems that neither director nor star learnt from the bloat of the Pirates sequels. There are points during the mid section where fatigue sets in, because there is so little to variation on the release-capture structure. A whole lot of fat that needed pruning. Wilkinson’s exposition is necessary, but he never comes alive the way Captain Barbossa does in Pirates. The sign of a great villain is that you don’t want the camera to cut back to the hero. This isn’t an issue in The Lone Ranger. The Pirates films are the very evidently the template for the movie; a whacky Depp character, an unengaging love interest for his humourless sidekick, and unnecessarily burdened with extraneous subplots. Why does Helena Bonham Carter’s brothel madam feature at all? Although, whilst there’s no need for her, at least she isn't dull. And it’s fun to see the writers and Verbinski get away with the kind of subversiveness seen in the quirky fetishisation of her false leg.
Most egregiously unearned is the framing device of an elderly Tonto reminiscing his heyday. This is also a direct reference to Little Big Man, and it really doesn’t work. Excise it and you lose a good 10 minutes, which would only have improved the picture. It doesn’t matter too much at the start but come the third act, where events are in full swing and there’s a sudden cut back to aged Tonto, it kills the momentum at exactly the point when it is crucial to pick up the pace; it’s so wrongheaded, it’s almost as if Verbinski is perversely trying to sabotage the picture’s chances of success. On occasions, there is a deftness to the roll back and reframing of a scene (the bank robbery, the dynamiting of the bridge) but at others it leaves the viewer unsatisfied (I really wanted to see whatever lunatic method Tonto uses to escape prison). The unreliable narrator device can work well if it is integral to the concept (The Usual Suspects, Fight Club), and the interrupting youngster likewise (The Princess Bride) but here it’s an extra layer of icing that collapses the cake.
But, in spite of all these faults, the main reason I give The Lone Ranger something of a free pass is Gore Verbinski's visual acumen. It’s also why Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion stands as one of my favourite movies of the summer, in spite of its flaws. Superficial? Maybe. The Lone Ranger wouldn’t make sense as a radio play. Verbinski is working with DP Bojan Bazelli for the second time (he has teamed with Dariusz Wolski on four occasions and Phedon Papamichael twice), The Ring being their previous collaboration. Bazelli’s CV doesn’t consist of the most acclaimed of titles, but Verbinski always extracts the best from his cinematographers. Every frame of The Lone Ranger is gorgeous. His flair is so abundant that it barely merits mention, when another director would reap the plaudits. Also, and this can’t be understated in a world where The Hobbit ends up with more faking looking CGI than The Lord of the Rings featured a decade earlier, he has a singular ability to integrate effects with live action. I say singular; there are a few out there who know their craft (Kosinski is one, Roland Emmerich another), but it’s a rarity to see pixels rendered with such depth and weight that you’re barely aware that’s all they are.
So it’s true to say Verbinski is one of my favourite visual stylists working today. And he is the master of the effortless set piece. The giddy juggling act of competing trains recalls the whirlpool acrobatics of the rather exhausting climax of At World’s End, only more engaging. But runaway trains bookend the picture, and I think the opener is the more successful (actually, I may revise this when I revisit the movie; it may just be that after two and a half hours it had its work cut out in reengaging me). The finale definitely benefits enormously from the use of the William Tell Overture, a signature as definitive as the Bond theme and one you can’t help but conclude Hans Zimmer should have woven liberally into the score.
Zimmer is Verbinski’s regular composer and, despite this lapse, they ensure the soundtrack is a pleasurably referential experience. Zimmer has always been a bit patchy for me, prone to filling in scores by numbers when he isn’t pushed. Occasionally he would come up with something truly beautiful (The Thin Red Line) but it’s only in the past couple of years that he’s found directors who willing to specifically guide, and challenge, him in what they want. The results (the scores for The Dark Knight, Inception and Sherlock Holmes) have been some of his best. I wouldn’t put The Lone Ranger in that league; there’s too much homaging for it to strike out on its own. He takes his cues as much from his Holmes scores as from Ennio Morricone’s work with Sergio Leone (appropriate, as Verbinski makes this the most sumptuous western since Leone’s operatic peak period). The building of the railroad sequence overtly homages Once Upon a Time in the West both visually and aurally.
Usually in a Johnny Depp movie, Depp is the unquestionable star. But on this occasion the animal cast may have supplanted him. Alive, dead, or digitally rendered, the creatures here walk, run or flop about with the comedy laurels. I’ve mentioned the fearsome rabbits, but also featured area slew of CGI scorpions (whose threat is surmounted by another animal force). Dead creatures prove no less animated. Tonto’s dead crow is fed grain in a running gag that doesn’t quite come off, but its comic highlight comes when it gets shot. Then there’s the threat of violation by duck’s foot. Peerless amongst this menagerie is Tonto himself (“Something very wrong with that horse”), who sits in trees and saunters up to rescue our heroes just in the nick off time. More mysteriously, I could have sworn I saw a man with the head of a bison in HBC’s brothel.
There have been rumours that, following The Lone Ranger’s tanking, the once titanic Jerry Bruckheimer is being pushed to the fringes of the upcoming Pirates 5. It wouldn’t surprise me too greatly. On the one hand, his status as one of the few remaining “star” producers has ensured that those he supports are shepherded and protected in their projects. On the other, the tendency for his pictures to be less and less disciplined has become marked. A decade ago he was bringing two or three projects a year to the screen; now one would be pushing it. He also turns 70 this year, and there’s a point where even a dynamo begins to wind down.
I'm not really surprised at the slating The Lone Ranger has received, and I can’t actively mount a spirited riposte because I can see where the criticisms are coming from. If you didn't like the last couple of Pirates of the Caribbeans you definitely won't be won over, but it feels a little arbitrary that this has been so damned and blasted. The Lone Ranger is no more artistically and narratively problematic than some of the more garlanded success stories of the past summer. Like its Pirates predecessors, its ideal medium is likely to be the home entertainment market, where unwieldy length can turn from a hindrance to an assistance. It’s an irony of Verbinski’s career that he is so attached to spectacle yet his pictures tend to work better on the small screen. One thing’s certain; a sequel’s out.