As a long-in-coming reboot of a much-loved (though little seen, recently anyway) pop culture mainstay, Disney's big budget opus The Lone Ranger is a bit too long and a bit too uneven at times. But the high stakes project, which re-teams global superstar Johnny Depp with his Pirates of the Carribean helmer Gore Verbinski, is also undeniably fun, representing a return to the kind of prominence for the legendary lawman that's largely passed him by for the better part of the last five decades.
Amazingly enough, 2013 marks eighty years since the Lone Ranger made his debut, by way of a 1933 radio show produced by George W. Trendle. From then to now, the Ranger has ridden his great horse Silver through features films, television shows, comics, children's books, you name it. While that cultural footprint is no doubt impressive (a 1980 Filmation cartoon show was an integral part of my childhood), the sad reality is that the character hasn't really mattered since the 1950s, when he was played by the iconic Clayton Moore on a long-running TV series (with actor Jay Silverheels as Native American sidekick Tonto).
Various attempts have been made to breathe new life into the brand since its television heyday, including 1982's disastrous The Legend of the Lone Ranger feature (more remembered today for the nasty legal battle it spawned between the producers and the beloved Moore than anything in the actual film itself), as well as an unfortunate, go-nowhere 2003 TV pilot for the WB network (starring One Tree Hill's Chad Michael Murray in the lead...'nuff said). None of these attempts really caught on, betraying a failing in either the material or the approach to said material.
Still, given that studios are constantly on the hunt for the Next Great Franchise over the rise, it's perhaps inevitable that Disney (and producer Jerry Bruckheimer) saw mountains of silver beckoning with the opportunity to revive the property as a vehicle for Depp, playing Tonto, with up-and-comer Armie Hammer in the title role. Written by the Pirates duo Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (who also worked their mojo on another classic hero in 1998's The Mask of Zorro and its 2005 follow-up) and Justin Haythe, The Lone Ranger filters the masked hero's story through the prism of his "faithful Indian friend."
Via a framing device wherein the aged warrior reflects on his past adventures, we're introduced to mild-mannered district attorney John Reid (Hammer), left for dead after his older brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a legendary Texas ranger, is murdered at the hands of vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish (a sneering, scenery-chewing William Fichtner). When Reid the younger is found and revived by mystical Tonto, he vows to bring his brother's killer to justice, donning a mask (with some prompting) to preserve his identity. Thus, the legend of the Lone Ranger is born.
Of course, if that's all there was, this would be a much shorter movie (and at 149 minutes, I assure you, this isn't a short movie). And so we also have some business about a hidden silver mine, a plan to start a war with the Comanche nation, and the arrival of the railroad into the great, unexplored frontier. While this stuff is moderately diverting, with some solid character actors sprinkled in to add a veneer of respectability (Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Root, etc.), it's mostly an excuse to deploy the same kind of sturm-und-drang that Depp and Verbinski used to turn the Pirates franchise into a money-minting machine.
The Mouse House reportedly spent upwards of $250 million bringing The Lone Ranger to the screen, and while we can certainly argue the necessity of dropping the GDP of a small country on a project like this, there's no denying that we see it all on the screen, whether the opening act train crash sequence or the third act...uh, train crash sequence. Okay, maybe they could have mixed things up a bit, but it looks spectacular all the same, and Verbinski demonstrates the practices finesse of an old pro who's already spent many a year in the franchise film trenches when it comes to staging the elaborate effects sequences.
To be perfectly honest, I went into this film with a fair bit of trepidation. The exorbitant budget notwithstanding, when I first heard Depp would be playing Tonto, I had visions in my head of the "sidekick" doing the heavy lifting while a befuddled "hero" tripped, stumbled, and flailed in the background. This is most definitely not that. While Tonto has more prominence here than any prior telling, it's also understood that once you cast an actor with the superstar mega-wattage of Depp as the ostensible second banana, the traditional power relationship between the pair is going to be rejiggered to reflect that.
That said, there's never a sense that one is less heroic than the other, and Hammer more than holds his own. With charm and charisma to spare, he makes a very comfortable entree onto the leading man stage after several years of toiling in well-received character parts. The bond eventually (inevitably) forged between the pair feels earned by the time they off to further adventures (and, Disney no doubt hopes, further sequels), and while this take on the masked man definitely goes its own way and skewers a few sacred cows getting there, it nonetheless manages to embody so many things he traditionally represents.
His single-minded pursuit of justice, his code against killing, his array of silver bullets, all are well represented here, as is "The William Tell Overture," Giaochino Rossini's signature piece of music that's become at least as essential to the character as his ivory steed Silver. Disney's take on The Lone Ranger will likely be perceived as many different things to many different people. At times loving homage, at times bold reinvention, and at times winking parody, it's nonetheless an altogether enjoyable summer entertainment that manages, in its own way, to hearken back to those thrilling days of yesteryear. B
To hear me discuss The Lone Ranger further, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast by downloading here or streaming below: