It is as apparent in The Lone Ranger as it was in 2011’s Rango that director Gore Verbinski has not only a deep and abiding love for westerns, but a spectacular handle on the aesthetics of the genre. Outside of Rango, The Lone Ranger is easily the filmmaker’s most visually stunning effort to date, one that makes particularly tremendous use of location shooting, with characters placed among breathtaking desert and mountain vistas, and the immersive widescreen frame being exploited to its fullest extent. Including the terrific production, costume, and sound design, The Lone Ranger is, on the surface at least, immediately identifiable as a grand Western epic, the kind which we see very rarely these days, and no matter how many problems the film itself may have, the genre-specific energy with which Verbinski has imbued the film is often infectious.
But since the original Pirates of the Caribbean film in 2003, Verbinski’s blockbuster credentials have never been in doubt. Say what you will about the story and character work in the film’s first two sequels, but Verbinski’s endlessly creative staging of action, use of location, and propensity for coherent and impactful spectacle are unquestionably stunning. Those are all traits he brings to The Lone Ranger as well, many of them sharper and more developed than ever before, but the film itself ultimately serves as further proof that the man is a vastly better director than much of the material he has been given throughout his career. For as a script – written by Justin Haythe and Pirates scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio – The Lone Ranger is irredeemably awful, a massive, identity-challenged mess that would be largely incoherent – not to mention interminably dull – without Verbinski’s spectacular direction. The finished film is bad, but not painfully so, which not only goes to show how much a good filmmaker can do with inferior material, but makes one wonder what this film could have been were Verbinski given something better to work with.
More than anything else, this is a very clunky origin story, one where Haythe, Elliot, and Rossio never once seem to have a clear handle on their interpretation of the Lone Ranger. As portrayed here, the character is aggressively boring from the get-go, a wet blanket without an ounce of agency who experiences many strange things, but almost never enacts action of his own accord. Played by Armie Hammer, we meet John Reid on a train travelling back to his home town. He believes very strongly in the legal concept of ‘justice,’ as we are told over and over again, but what that belief actually entails is never developed, and it remains his only significant character trait for the majority of the movie. Especially at the outset, Reid barely feels like a real character to begin with, let alone one who will become a major, iconic American hero. The film immediately leaps into a major action sequence, as villain Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who is being transported to his execution on the train, escapes, with Reid and a mysterious Native American named Tonto (Johnny Depp) attempting to stop him. The choreography and execution of the set piece is technically superb in every way, but the entire sequence lands dead-on-arrival because every participant in the action is, at this point, a total non-entity, with Reid in particular standing out as one giant, glaring question mark.
Over the course of the film, his presence becomes only slightly clearer. The script is so preoccupied building a massive, convoluted plot to force Reid into the role of the Lone Ranger that it forgets to give the man any semblance of actual character. It takes well over 30 minutes for the inciting event in the Ranger’s life to even occur – after the train debacle, Reid’s older brother is murdered by Cavendish, and Reid is left in the desert with Tonto seeking revenge – let alone for him to don the hat, mask, and white horse. Even then, Reid does not make any of the choices that define him as the Lone Ranger – if he ever makes them at all (more on that in a minute) – until just after the 2-hour mark, which is how long it takes him to realize that working within the system is a mistake. The 149-minute runtime is ludicrous on every level, but stretching out the ‘origin story,’ as it were, for such an interminably vast length of time, especially when the true nature of the antagonists is painfully obvious to every viewer and screen character except Reid, is baffling.
I am especially confused as to why the Lone Ranger, of all pulp heroes, needs an origin story this incredibly overwrought. Even if we want to pretend the character has any significance or relevance in the modern pop culture landscape – he doesn’t, for the record – it is ridiculous to pretend he, of all heroes, deserves a ‘reimagination’ this convoluted. All the messy plot contortions and big, showy speeches about ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ only serve to underline how nonexistent a handle the writers have on the character to begin with. The Lone Ranger need not be anything more than a fun, idealistic western icon, but here, he is not even that, because the story and character decisions rob him of all possible agency.
I have no sense, at the end of the film, what exactly this incarnation of the Lone Ranger stands for. Is it the ‘justice’ he so often speaks of? Maybe, but that would require justice having any sort of meaningful definition within the diegesis of the narrative; instead, what we get in this film is two hours of the Ranger being devoted to government legal systems, then having his faith shaken and going on a vigilante killing spree. To what end does it all serve? I have no idea, and I cannot tell you how this particular adventure defines the Ranger as a character, let alone as a hero worth following. One of the reasons I love Man of Steel, for instance, is because the threat of General Zod was perfectly tailored to make Clark Kent consider where he came from and what path he wishes to follow for the rest of his life. Here, the Lone Ranger is just fueled by revenge, and never develops a heroic identity that can stand on its own outside this one single story. Armie Hammer does what he can in the part, but it is impossible to judge his effectiveness, because he has been saddled with a completely unplayable role.
The biggest hindrance on the Ranger as a character, however, is his sidekick, Tonto. Johnny Depp is, in the balance, the film’s single biggest problem, but even taking his wretched performance out of the equation, Tonto as written further robs the Lone Ranger of active agency. Tonto is the one with the elaborate, tragic backstory, Tonto gets the big, showy action sequences and speeches, and most importantly, Tonto winds up telling the Ranger what to do at every single turn. The partnership is so wildly imbalanced that, as an action hero, the Ranger is nothing more than a puppet.
But as I said, Johnny Depp is the central disaster area at hand. Once upon a time, I loved Depp as much as everyone else, but that was before the quirky aura of Captain Jack Sparrow had completely consumed him. I hate to say it, but there is no denying this anymore: Pirates ruined Depp as an actor, and all he has done since then is cookie-cutter variations on that eccentric persona. Depp plays Tonto as Jack Sparrow with broken English, and where this kind of acting once felt like it had a real source of lightning-in-a-bottle inspiration behind it, at this point Depp is just giving a bad performance. One can discuss the portrayal in the context of racism (which we will in a moment), or focus further on the imbalance between Tonto and John Reid in the plot, but when all is said and done, no other qualifications are needed. This is just terrible acting, and given how central Tonto is to the movie, Depp is at least partially responsible for a tremendous amount of material falling to pieces.
And yes, the portrayal and characterization of Tonto is undeniably racist. No need to soften or sugarcoat it, because Depp dressing up and playing Native American, highly exaggerated and often for laughs, is no different than blackface. Whether or not Depp’s real-life claims to Native American ancestry are true (none have ever been confirmed), he is still putting on make-up and caricaturizing himself to ridiculous degrees to play someone of a different ethnicity, and I find it offensive. All of Tonto’s mystic and comedic qualities stem from ‘otherizing’ the character, playing off the supposed distance between ‘him’ and ‘us,’ and while the film tries to sidestep this problem by contextualizing Tonto’s behavior as extreme even by his tribe’s standards, it is not nearly enough to erase the fact that Depp has still chosen to inhabit a Native American character by heightening every aspect of his performance. It would be a problem no matter what, but it might be less glaring were ethnicity and racial tensions less a part of Tonto’s character; but as written, Tonto’s heritage is absolutely crucial, and constantly at the forefront of the film, and that only serves to further cement Depp as the wrong choice for this role.
In truth, the only interesting decisions the script makes are in regards to Tonto’s character history and arc; with a different (and, ideally, authentically Native American) actor in the part, I could see these aspects being executed well. Depp is horrible, so all Tonto material fails utterly, but I think if nothing about this film changed other than Depp, the finished product would be noticeably better. All the structural imbalances would still be in place, and John Reid would still be a terrible character, but there would not be this giant dead spot in the middle of the picture. Of course, what I really would have loved to see, since the majority of the Lone Ranger iconography was reinvented anyway, is a truly equal partnership between Tonto and the Ranger, each being strong, interesting characters from separate backgrounds who put cultural differences aside to help their respective societies out during this fascinating period of intense strife. The film pays lip service to what horrible things were happening to Native Americans at the time, but actually building a story around that – perhaps having the United States’ thinly-veiled genocide contribute to the Lone Ranger’s conception of justice outside boundaries of law – would be both historically conscious and dramatically engaging.
In any case, that is not the film at hand. I have only begun to scratch the surface of every problem that plagues the script, but most of them can be summarized with the words ‘dull’ and ‘overwrought.’ The actual plot, in which Tonto and the Lone Ranger set out to take down Butch Cavendish and wind up unearthing a massive conspiracy, is dumb, convoluted, and needlessly confusing. As with many films this summer, we get multiple layers of antagonists, and while it is painfully obvious who the actual villains are, the film stretches the investigation out as a wildly uninteresting mystery, something for Tonto and the Ranger to kill time dealing with, and every last step of it is a drag. The investigative aspects are clunky – there is a general lack of flow in narrative progression, where one scene rarely seems to have any clear impact on the next – but more importantly, they are boring. That is a word I try as much as possible to shy away from in criticism, but when the film goes to such extreme lengths to pack itself with action and intrigue, and the audience is left unaffected by any of it, ‘boring’ is really the only word that fits. The entire script is an effort in throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks, especially in regards to the supporting cast; there are simply far too many characters for any of them to be properly serviced, with lots of strong performers flailing desperately to find something, anything to latch on to.
The film’s single strangest issue, though – and the one of highest import to family audiences – is tone. The Lone Ranger features a truly wretched framing device, in which a young boy in the 1920s visits a carnival and, in a tent displaying different pieces of Western iconography, meets a very old version of Tonto, who proceeds to tell him the story of the film. Never mind that it is terribly executed – Depp’s old-age makeup is hilariously awful – the real problem here is that it seems to establish The Lone Ranger as a little kid’s movie. I would be fine with that, as this is exactly the kind of idealistic hero who could appeal to young ones, but the film itself is oppressively dark throughout, with these flashes back to the framing device being the only reprieves from gloom. The film is shockingly violent and persistently sadistic – part of the Ranger’s origin story is that he sees Cavendish cut out his brother’s heart and eat it – with the worldview being downright nihilistic. Tonally, it is a mess, because not only do those choices fail to mesh with the film’s ultimate (and completely unearned) conception of the Lone Ranger as an ideal to strive for, but it makes the framing scenes feel like something out of an entirely different movie. Parents should absolutely be wary of taking young children to this one; I cannot imagine the sense of whiplash families would feel watching the film alternate between goofy slapstick, gritty violence, and childlike narration.
Of the two major Hans Zimmer scores this summer, The Lone Ranger is decidedly inferior. Where Man of Steel saw Zimmer invigorated, innovating to downright miraculous degrees, The Lone Ranger is Zimmer on complete and total autopilot, the majority of the music stylistically – or, at times, literally – recycled from past scores like Sherlock Holmes and Dead Man’s Chest (there is a Tonto cue ripped verbatim from Jack Sparrow’s theme). The highlight of the entire film, though, is Zimmer’s arrangement and presentation of the William Tell overture – the Lone Ranger’s traditional anthem – and how he blends it together with a catchy new theme for the character during the film’s climactic action set-piece. Zimmer projects volumes more in those ten or so minutes of music about how inspirational and iconic this character should feel than the film itself ever does in two-and-a-half hours.
It helps that the last action sequence is a real winner, a creative and legitimately spectacular climax that could have served as a wonderful capper to a very different, and much better, movie. But as previously mentioned, it is no surprise that Gore Verbinski can stage action, nor that he can work wonders with visuals. He is a good director, and I do not want to take anything away from that, especially in regards to the positive attributes he brings to this film. But The Lone Ranger on the whole is a bad movie, and while that contrast between excellent direction and terrible writing is a fascinating one to study, the film is, unfortunately, worth nobody’s time, especially when there are so many better films playing in theatres this summer.