I cannot, in good conscience, call The Lone Ranger a good movie. But I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time during its Bruckheimer-esque two-and-a-half-hour running time. Director Gore Verbinski specializes in summer-style mayhem – going all the way back to his comparatively modest first feature Mouse Hunt – and unlike a lot of explosion-based filmmakers, he actually possesses his own auteurial voice. The Rube Goldberg action sequences and slightly-off-kilter sense of humor couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s, and even when his budget rises to Third World GNP proportions, he never forgets to put a smile on our faces.
So here sits his update of The Lone Ranger, the venerable cowboy story morphing into Pirates of the Caribbean: The Wild West Years. The potential for disaster looms large, and Verbinski never quite manages to shake it. But thanks to some interesting concepts, a game tone and a goofily lovable performance from Armie Hammer in the lead, the film finds its way to the proper end of a modest good time.
Hammer actually proves to be an ace in the hole: smart enough to see the ridiculous side of his hunky, square-jawed physique and charming enough to sell us on a slightly satirical approach to the role. The script delivers the perfect reimagining of the iconic figure for him: greenhorn lawyer John Reid sent out to Texas to prosecute various bad men and thus establish the rule of law in the great frontier. That hits a snag when notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) breaks out of imprisonment on the train carrying Reid, who then joins his Texas Ranger sibling (James Badge Dale) in hunting the man down. One ambush later and Reid is left brotherless, with an empty grave marking the spot where he alone survived. Donning a mask and joined by the possibly crazy Indian Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has his own reasons for wanting Cavendish dead, he sets out to establish justice from behind an outlaw’s mask.
Verbinski piles a lot of superfluous plot on top of that, complete with tertiary characters, overarching railroad schemes and a one-legged hooker played by Helena Bonham Carter. (And let’s face it, if you’re gonna have a hooker in your movie, you may as well make her one legged.) It makes for a lot of frantic activity as our heroic duo rides to and fro in search of their quarry, dealing with bandits, Indians, comely widows and the expected cocktail of western clichés.
Trains make up a big part of it. Verbinski has a peculiar fascination with the vehicles and arranges for all kinds of CGI-laden wackiness centered around them. The opening and closing set pieces both feature spectacular train wrecks of the sort that wouldn’t be possible the last time a Lone Ranger movie was made. The best of them involves Reid and his scene-stealing horse Silver performing impossible feats on the roof, through the passenger car and occasionally at the entrance of inconvenient tunnel or two. The Lone Ranger revels in the clockwork apparatus that creates the threat in these sequences: how one event leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to a giant piece of engine flying right at our protagonists’ heads. It’s loud and exhilarating, and occasionally way, way too much, but it doesn’t look like anything else, which gives The Lone Ranger a lot of its juice.
On the other hand, the sound and fury doesn’t necessarily add up to much. The bombast grows deafening more than once and while Hammer’s revisionist Ranger carries plenty of charm, he doesn’t spring into action like he should until late in the game. Then there’s the question of Depp whose Tonto is unique, strangely respectful… and still a failure. We never sense the character here – supposedly a crazy-like-a-fox partner for the Ranger who uses the monosyllabic racial caricature as a rope-a-dope for stupid white men. Instead, it’s just Johnny being Johnny, trying a little too hard to make us laugh and winking a little too hard through his whiteface make-up. The Lone Ranger makes clever use of a framing device, with Depp as an old man speaking to a young fan of the radio Ranger. (Note to Man of Steel: this is how you do flashbacks.) It’s a nice bit of nostalgia, but it also smacks of actor vanity, with Depp’s old age make-up supposedly showing us his range. The performance never clicks on any level (though admittedly he has some funny moments) and indeed comes perilously close to derailing everything.
In the end, it may just be the overall tone that saves The Lone Ranger from itself. This is an upbeat movie, one that eschews gritty reality in favor of the kind of romp that summer used to specialize in. Every time its noisiness threatens to overwhelm us, it counters with a friendly wave and a “lighten up” grin. In other summers, that might not be enough, but this one has been so sour faced and grim that any levity at all comes as a refreshing surprise. Verbinski supplies it with plenty of baggage to be sure, but I confess that when the William Tell Overture kicked in during the finale, it made me feel like a little kid again. Don’t mistake this for quality entertainment. Instead look at it as the kind of movie that summers used to be for: the kind that makes you forget your troubles instead of repackaging them in a more colorful form. Thank you masked man; we really needed this.