I just got out of Gore Verbinksi's THE LONE RANGER and I have the same feeling I used to get on the day after a full weekend of partying with copious amounts of booze, weed, and psilocybin mushrooms. I feel more than a little disoriented and confused, as though trying to awaken from a weird dream or process a vision quest that didn't work out quite right.
I'm a fan of the western genre. By no means an expert like my friend Big Black Paul — aka "Big Black-Ass Cowboy" — but a fan nonetheless, so I've seen many of the classics of the form, both domestic and foreign in origin (Italian westerns definitely count). I know all the tropes, so the experience of sitting through this film was akin to watching a pastiche-happy film editor putting together favorite moments from about two dozen oaters, re-shooting them with different actors and modern filmmaking technology, then splicing it all together and unleashing the resulting horse-operatic chimera onto the screen. It's a well-crafted work populated by game professionals both in front of and behind the camera, but it's one fucking weird mama-jamma that tries hard to please and mostly comes up short.
The film features a framing device set at a wild west fair in 1933, in which a kid in a cowboy outfit and Lone Ranger mask enters an exhibit featuring stuffed examples of conquered animals from the days of the west's then-fairly-recent yesteryear. His perusal of the displays comes to an abrupt halt when the exhibit of "The Noble Savage in his natural habitat" — a faux tipi against a painted backdrop that serves as a 1/1 scale diorama for a life-sized Native American figure holding an upraised tomahawk — turns out to be an actual, living Injun (Johnny Depp in full old age makeup). The ancient Native American mistakes the boy for the Lone Ranger and once he sorts out that it's just a kid in a costume, the Indian, whom the kid realizes is the legendary Tonto, tells the kid the origin story of the apparently once-real Lone Ranger. Tonto's something of an unreliable narrator and his tale contains a number of questionable points (which his young audience points out throughout the film) but judging from what we are shown as the story unfolds, it's pretty clear to me that it's all a tall tale filtered through Tonto's possibly insane memories.
The story proper takes place in the Texas of 1869 as a railroad is being constructed. Long story short, sadistic outlaw/cannibal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) escapes his looming date with the hangman, rides off into the plains with his equally morally-bereft gang (including one who's apparently a homosexual frontier drag queen who "likes pretty things") and murders a bunch of Texas Rangers who pursue him. Among the Rangers is John Reid (Armie Hammer), who is the only one to survive the massacre, and he vows to seek justice for the murder of his revered brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), who previously nabbed Cavendish and saw him sentenced to prison. Dan lives long enough have Cavendish kill him and cut out and eat his heart (which is depicted with considerable restraint but it's made absolutely clear what happens), which is witnessed by John just before he passes out and is left for dead. Also on Cavendish's trail is Tonto, who has trailed Cavendish for twenty-six years in the wake of the outlaw's massacre of his people, due to a bad decision that the young Comanche made. Finding the apparently dead rangers, Tonto, being a decent guy, digs graves for all of them and soon discovers John is miraculously back from the dead and seemingly chosen for greater things by a stark white "spirit horse" that Tonto communicates with. Telling the resurrected John that he is now a spirit-walker who is incapable of being killed in battle because he's been to the other side and returned, the two team up after the usual cross-cultural misunderstandings common to this kind of tale, and they share many adventures on the trail of Cavendish, with John adopting his iconic masked look. Complications and encounters along the way include John's youthful love and Dan's comely widow, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), whom John still adores, a brothel madame with a scrimshaw/shotgun prosthetic leg (Helena Bonham Carter) who wants revenge on Cavendish for reducing her to her current one-legged status, an Injun-massacring cavalry officer who bears an intentional resemblance to General Custer (Barry Pepper, star of the infamous BATTLEFIELD EARTH), and corrupt railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who has a couple of dark secrets and defines the term "hostile takeover."
There's a ton of action and a surprising amount of percussive violence and gunplay, which at times lends the film the feel of "What if Sam Peckinpah directed a kid's western" (there are a few obvious nods to Peckinpah's epochal THE WILD BUNCH), plus we get Tonto providing no small amount of Indian mysticism, so it's pretty much a textbook post-Ford/Leone horse opera. That said, it's a dreamlike (my friend Suzi called it flat-out boring) pastiche that at times defies one's willing suspension of disbelief and prompts the audience to ask aloud "What the fuck did I just watch?" The problems arise from a few factors, chief among which is the obvious attempt at scoring another PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN box office bullseye and the film's borderline-hallucinogenic length. It's visually lush and epic with gorgeous cinematography by Bojan Bozelli — who did the honors for one of my favorite comedies of the 1980's, namely TAPEHEADS (1988) — but that lushness cannot hide a certain meandering pace that compounds the length in the film's attempt at being more meaty that it actually is. I didn't find it boring but I did note how goddamned long the thing was. At two and a half hours, the movie's at least forty-five minutes too bloated, and once it reaches a certain point it feels like time has warped and the film just might go on forever. I swear it felt like it just. Would. Not. End. And when it does finally wrap things up after a spectacular two-train chase sequence that looks for all the world like the template for a tie-in videogame, it ends on a weird, mystical note that I don't feel works for the narrative, despite some of the other mystical touches on hand throughout. (The sight of the pale spirit horse inexplicably perched on a tree branch being perhaps the most perplexing. It's so weird that even Tonto tersely observes "There's something wrong with that horse.")
The Lone Ranger himself is something of a problem because the script can't seem to nail down just what his personality is. He fluctuates between being a righteous proponent of the letter of the law, a clueless moron, a wacky comedic lead, and, worst of all, a bit of a pussy. He could have been worse but those seeking a western hero to inspire them are advised to look elsewhere.
The elephant in the room, namely Tonto, was one of my favorite things in the film. Yes, he's not played by an actual Native American, but Depp is clearly out to rehabilitate Tonto — already a much maligned and misunderstood character — from his perceived stereotypical, broken-English-speaking stoicism and red-faced Uncle Tom(ahawk) side-kickery. I dug Tonto's bird-on-head and white face paint with symbolic black tears (believe me, he has very good reason to express the sadness in his soul), and he is by far the more interesting of the film's heroes. It was a bold move to tell the story from his (possibly skewed) point of view and I definitely appreciate that. However, would it really have been so hard to find a Native American actor to play the part? Sure, Depp is a box office draw and possesses a huge fan base, but it's 2013, people...
When the lights came up, my friend Daniel noted that we'd just seen $230 million bucks riding off into the sunset, and he could not be more right. The ending was clearly a setup for a hoped-for franchise, but that just ain't gonna happen. Some iconic properties are ripe for re-invention/reboots and some have that happen every generation or so, but, and I hate to say this, I honestly believe that the Lone Ranger's time passed once the 1950's ended. He's just too firmly-defined as a kid-friendly, ultra-squeaky-clean good guy who rides the range selflessly righting wrongs in a Wild West whose romanticized patina has been long washed away by the general acknowledgement of the horrific atrocities committed as the west was won, or rather stolen by lawlessness, faithless governmental dishonesty, unbridled racism, and still-horrific genocide. Our innocence/blindness in that department is long gone, and nowadays is anyone really going to buy a western hero who only shoots people in the hands? I say the Ranger and Tonto are a nostalgia item who are more or less doomed as our culture becomes more cynical with each passing day. The audience of roughly sixty attendees mostly consisted of moviegoers aged sixty and over, clearly fueled by fond memories of Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, and that demographic is simply not numerous nor box office-present enough to warrant the Lone Ranger and Tonto being given another shot by a major studio again. Sadly, this flick may be the final nail in their pop cultural coffin.
Bottom line: I didn't hate THE LONE RANGER, but I am not blind to its many faults (several of which I just couldn't bring myself to bother going into) and needlessly-oppressive running time. It looks great and Tonto is a lot of fun, but I cannot recommend it as a first-run ticket expenditure. When all is said and done, what we're left with here is yet another huge-budgeted disposable "product" movie that will look great on TV as one combats insomnia and gets lulled to dreamland by its aforementioned borderline-hallucinogenic pace. I suppose there are worse things to have than a western-inspired dream, so keep it in mind when you require a pretty cinematic soporific. And if you want to see a genuinely good western from Gore Verbinski, look no further the the animated RANGO (2011), which features Johnny Depp giving voice to the title character.