One thing you’ll be asking yourself once you leave the theater after watching this film is, “was The Lone Ranger really a character worth investing $250 million dollars into?” This new film, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and directed by Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski, arrives this Fourth of July weekend amid a lot of bad buzz surrounding its bloated budget and lack of interest from advanced audiences. To their credit, the production company, Disney, did show concern over the production problems early on and nearly canned the project when the first budget estimates were made.
But apparently producer Jerry Bruckheimer reassured them that the film would be worth the huge investment and that by having Disney’s “golden boy” Johnny Depp involved, the production would be a guaranteed international success. Unfortunately for Disney, it seems that their worst fears are coming true. There’s little excitement for this film, despite a valiant effort by the Disney marketing team that managed to get someone like me interested. But the opening night showing I saw was only half full, which doesn’t bold well for the film’s chances this weekend. All this would lead you to believe that Disney has a huge mess on their hands and yes, the film is a spectacular mess; but it’s also an entertaining one.
The problem that the movie faces is that it is trying to jump-start a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since the WWII era. Even my parents didn’t grow up that much with the Lone Ranger, so we have a character whose several generations removed from the audiences who knew him best. The filmmakers are probably aware of this to some extant, so what we have in The Lone Ranger is a story that borrows what we know best about the character (the mask, Tonto, his horse Silver, the William Tell Overture theme music, etc.) and places them within an prototypical Western plot. The story involves a lawman named John Reid (Armie Hammer), who’s tracking down a notorious criminal named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Butch ambushes Reid and his posse of deputies and leaves them dead in the desert. Reid, however, was not mortally wounded and finds himself being buried alive by a quirky Indian guide named Tonto (Johnny Depp). Tonto believes that Reid has been brought back to life for a reason and the two agree to help one another out as they uncover Cavendish’s villainous plan, which involves silver mining and the Trans-continental railroad. In order to protect his identity, Reid soon assumes the name of the “Lone Ranger.”
The film’s best aspect is that it does present the world of the “Lone Ranger” very well. The film is gorgeously shot and feels quite epic at times. You can defiantly see where all the money went on screen. The movie presents a version of the West that’s both familiar to audiences, but also skewed a bit to feel unique and of it’s own world. This was very clear in a scene where The Lone Ranger and Tonto visit a brothel owned by a madam named Red (Helena Bonham Carter). First of all, I think this is the first time that I can recall seeing prostitution depicted openly in a Disney film, and second of all, it’s a spectacular set piece. There’s a lot of macabre details thrown about here that really shows off the scale of the film, like an elevated boxcar used to create an arched entrance to the brothel, as well as a carnival atmosphere surrounding it. Gore Verbinski seems to be channeling Sam Raimi a bit in these scenes, with a mix of both the weird and the epic working throughout, which is understandable given that he did much of the same in Pirates of the Caribbean films. Though it may have the same vibe as Pirates, I do credit the film for not being a carbon copy of that franchise. It does have a unique tone that helps it stand apart.
Where the film falls apart, however, is in it’s story. The Lone Ranger is 2 1/2 hours long, and most of that is due to a lot of needless padding. You’ll find a lot of scenes that could have been resolved with a simple 30 second conversation turned into lengthy ten minute long action set pieces that have no point to them. This is clear at the beginning when Tonto and John Reid are trying to escape from a runaway train. The scene is action packed and features some nice effects work, but it just goes on and on, and in the end has nothing to do with the rest of the plot other than to have the two heroes meet for the first time. Many other scenes are like that and they do little to enhance what is ultimately a very paper thin plot. The writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the same men who wrote the Pirates movies) throw out a lot of twists and turns in the story that show some cleverness, but in the end don’t really add up to much. The plot is cliche riddled and the big plot mysteries could be figured out within five minutes by a kindergartner. While some of the Pirates movies could feel bloated at times, there was a sense of urgency that helped to propel the stories along. Here, it’s missing because the writers seemed to put more effort into the story’s tone rather than the plot.
The characters are a mixed bag as well. When it comes to the main characters, The Lone Ranger and Tonto work for the most part. I’m actually glad that Johnny Depp doesn’t just copy his Jack Sparrow shtick in his portrayal of Tonto. You can tell he put the work into crafting a whole new character, though like Captain Sparrow, the character is mostly played for laughs. Depp certainly helps carry the film along, and you can see why the filmmakers wanted to play upon his charisma here. The Lone Ranger is not as smoothly portrayed unfortunately. Here, John Reid is more Jimmy Stewart than John Wayne. But, to Armie Hammer’s credit, he plays that aspect of the character very well. I found myself enjoying his performance and I believe that he can work well as a leading man. The fault in the character is in how he’s written and not how he’s portrayed. A lot more could have been done with the development of the Lone Ranger, who unfortunately has the spotlight taken away from him by his more colorful sidekick; as well as a scene-stealing horse.
The villains are also a mixed bag. William Fichtner gives what is probably the film’s best performance as Butch Cavendish; one of the most loathsome and graphically violent villains to ever appear in a Disney film, if not the most. Fichtner chews up the scenery throughout the whole movie and brings some much needed life into the film whenever he’s on screen. Most importantly, he brings real menace to the character, which is missing from the film’s other villains. Part of Cavendish’s characterization involves his taste for human flesh, which he demonstrates by cutting out someone’s heart at one point and eating it. Graphic onscreen cannibalism, another first for the House of Mouse. It all makes for a gruesome, but ultimately memorable character. The same can’t be said for the film’s other villains. Tom Wilkinson plays a railroad tycoon named Latham Cole, your typical corporate A-hole character who ultimately is behind everything. Cole’s a bland, forgettable character and a complete waste of an actor as talented as Wilkinson. Barry Pepper also appears as a prototypical and bland military hotshot, though Pepper does try to add a bit more depth to his performance.
Most of the problems that you can attribute to these characters and the plot is that there is a lot of time wasted on nothing but indulgent visual stimuli. It all looks good for a second, but after a while, you just wish the story would move on. The movie suffers a lot from this, until you get to the final climax, which truth be told is one of the best things I’ve seen this whole summer. The final climax is actually a great, almost perfect finale, which makes you wonder why the rest of the movie wasn’t like it. It involves a chase with two steam locomotives that’s both playful and heart-pounding at the same time; like something out of Indiana Jones. I won’t spoil any more, but it almost makes the movie worth it in the end. You just have to sit through a long 2 hours to get there.
So, again, why was this story worth $250 million? I’m sure that Disney is asking that question right now. There are flashes of brilliance thrown about, particularly at the end, but there’s a whole lot of nothing as well. I think that if they had trimmed this film down to under two hours, they could have had a better movie. It’s not a bad film by any means, and to be fair I did enjoy my time watching it. But I’m sure not many people out there share my same level of patience. I think the movie is going to have a bad run domestically, and it might be a hard sell overseas; Westerns are not that big outside the U.S., unless they can capitalize on Depp’s popularity. As far as bloated, over-budgeted Westerns go, this is still way better than Wild, Wild West (1999), which was just garbage. There’s some value to The Lone Ranger in the end and you can admire the work that went into it. Fans of the “Ranger” should be pleased as well as fans of the Western genre in general. It maybe be an expensive and fatty meal, but it will still fill you up if that’s what you’re looking for.