There may be a way to mix the monumental tragedy of the Native American genocide with a screwball comedy about a well-meaning chucklehead and his mystically addled Comanche sidekick, but Gore Verbinski has not found it in his pretentious and smug version of THE LONE RANGER. True to the Verbinski style, this re-telling of the classic big of Americana is big. Big characters, big landscapes, big special effects, and, though one really doesnít have to say it, really, really big explosions. If only it had a script to justify it. Alas, it doesnít and so this putative summer blockbuster emerges as an intermittently entertaining, continually baffling exercise in confusion, both on screen and for the hapless viewer.
What we have here is an origin story told in flashback by the aged Tonto of 1933. He has become a sideshow attraction in San Francisco, and one lucky kid in a cowboy hat and mask is moseying through the Wild West exhibition, where, past the showcases displaying the grizzly bear and the buffalo he encounters Tonto (Johnny Depp), who regales him with the story of how the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) began his quest for justice with Tonto at his side.
Itís a tale of wonder set in 1869 Texas as the railroad is making its way across the continent, and on board one of those trains is the future Lone Ranger, John Reid (Hammer), newly minted lawyer traveling back to his dusty hometown of Clayton, TX to take up his post as District Attorney. Yes, thatís Clayton as in Moore as in the actor who played The Lone Ranger on television more than a half-century ago. Waiting for him in Clayton is his older brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger like their father, and Danís wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), whose picture John has carried around with him all these years.
Also traveling on Johnís train is the dastardly Butch Cavendish (William Fitchner), who is being brought to Clayton to be hanged as an example of how civilized this hamlet has become now that itís a stop on the railroad, and Tonto (Johnny Depp, who also co-executive produced), shackled next to Butch for reasons that are never explained. Butch snarls at the guards. Tonto chants to a broken pocket watch. And all heck is about to break loose.
When Verbinski makes an action film, he does so with an admirable elan that is not afraid of excess. His collaboration with Depp on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise proved that, and also that it could sometimes work in a weirdly overwrought way. Verbinski is not afraid of starting big and then working very hard to keep the established energy level buoyed up to suitably stratospheric levels. Here, alas, no. Cavendishís escape from custody is all that, plus the first meeting between Reid and Tonto where, despite finding themselves shackled together at one point, they do not bond. They do, however, scramble madly on top of the train carrying them to Clayton as it careens out of control with outlaws chasing them down and a band of Presbyterians being harried from several directions. Like all the action sequences to follow, itís slick, Itís smooth, and itís edited with a precision that makes the sloppiness of the writing all the more annoying.
The first half of the film moves along at a suitably hyperbolic pace. In short order, Rebecca is a widow with an adorable kid, Reid has been killed and resurrected by Tonto and the mysterious white horse that attaches itself to them both, and Cavendish has proven just how vicious he is by eating brother Danís heart. Thereís also Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the townís richest man, pitching unwelcome woo at Rebecca both before and after her widowhood, and the ivory-legged madame (Helena Bonham Carter) of the local house of ill-repute with her own sadly underwritten history with Cavendish.
Verbinskiís foray into the western finds him emulating John Ford and Sergio Leone. He does so with a fine eye, but, aside from the problematic decision to mix those iconic styles, he uses said styles to ill-effect. The dastardly doings in the desert might pass muster, as might Coleís dastardly doings with fellow businessmen and Rebecca, but the comedy with these paradigms is a disaster, despite Hammerís earnest efforts and Deppís typically eccentric ones. It falls similarly flat when depicting several massacres of the Comanche, done in at one point by an Army captain (Barry Pepper) tricked out to look like General Custer. They are sequences that are as shocking for their nihilism as for their complete disconnect from the rest of the film.
Depp, too, is disconnected from the film. Wearing grey caked mud on his face accented by four black stripes and a dead crow on his head, he is almost a parody of himself, irritating the audience with a performance that he seems to be doing for his own amusement, now ours. I donít know that Depp is capable of delivering a performance that isnít interesting, and this one certainly is, but entertaining is another matter altogether. As for Hammer, he is a throwback to the glamor of Old Hollywood, with those perfect features, dreamy blue eyes, stalwart bearing, and the way sunlight makes a golden haze of his abundant blonde chest hair. Heís the perfect romantic hero, longing for a woman he can never have, and heís also a good sport, playing straight man to Deppís weirdness. Heís even good playing the clueless believer in the rule of law who, despite harsh lessons to the contrary, has a great deal of trouble learning anything from those lessons. As long as itís played for laughs. When the film strays into pseudo-psychological territory, it also goes right over a cliff with its glibness. Watching Hammer gamely go through several genres in one film is to see a complete waste of an actor who shows such potential in each one.
One of the ongoing subtexts, nature out of balance, is never given the backstory to justify its presence in THE LONE RANGER, but it does offer one of the filmís best jokes, as a bunch of cute little bunny rabbit approach a campfire where one of their number is being roasted for dinner. In one all too brief scene, the film finds humor, parody, and the irresistible sense of playful surprise it should have had all along. Too bad one of those little lagomorphs didnít put on a mask, load some silver bullets in a bunny-sized six-gun, and hijack the film. Now that would have been something worth seeing.