Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger proves that it is indeed possible to make an inventive, highly personal, subversive big budget summer movie that’s actually about something. It also proves that there’s not much market for such a thing — with either the majority of the critics or the public — which means we may never see its like again. I’m not surprised. Before the first review hit, I had figured it was going to face a rough time on several counts — the ire of nostalgists who think the old Clayton Moore TV series is the bee’s knees, the wrath of those who grew to hate the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and, of course, the disdain of those who have decided that Johnny Depp is box-office poison. The Lone Ranger was the movie people seem to have wanted to see fail long before they had seen a single frame of film. That desire has been rewarded — guaranteeing us countless summers of movies like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6, Man of Steel and World War Z. Not that all of those are bad, but I’d trade the lot of them for a single film as imaginative and well made as The Lone Ranger.
If there’s anything actually wrong with the film — apart from the length, which I didn’t mind surprisingly — it’s that it’s too inventive, too clever and contains enough ideas for at least two movies. More films should have such “problems.” But let’s look at where I’m coming from. I have liked everything Verbinski has made (yes, even the Pirates sequels) since The Ring (2002). I am not suffering from Johnny Depp burnout. And I have zero reverence for the 1950s Lone Ranger TV show. That — combined with the fact that I expected to like this — probably makes me the perfect audience for it. Now, having said all that, I also have to say that the film far exceeded my expectations. This is awfully close to the summer blockbuster as “art film” — and it may even cross that line (except “art films” aren’t supposed to be fun).
Let’s start with the film’s framing story, set in 1933 (the year the radio series debuted). We’re in a San Francisco where the Golden Gate stands unfinished and about to meet in the middle (just like the transcontinental railroad of the main story). The camera wanders across this and over a fairground where a red balloon drifts away like a lost dream. Then the view settles on a tent promising the story of the Old West inside. There, a little boy (Mason Cook) — dressed as the Lone Ranger — looks dispassionately at dioramas until he reaches one labeled “The Noble Savage,” in which its occupant comes alarmingly to life. This is the fantastically aged Tonto (Depp) — whose make-up recalls Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970). It is he who will tell the film’s story — and despite what has been claimed in some quarters, this is not just a device. It’s central to the story and the question of how reliable any historical narrative is — including the film’s revisionism, because it’s not clear how credible Tonto is — especially, when the peanut bag he got from the kid in the framing story ends up in the main narrative. That Tonto’s possibly disarrayed memory and the framing story set up one of the film’s best gags is another plus — and just as important in its own way.
The story he tells is partly Buster Keaton-esque wild fun and partly a deeply disturbing look at American history. The combination of these elements seems to bother some people. It’s like our standards have been systematically lowered to the level of primetime TV drama where a story is either all comedic or all dramatic, and anything deviating from that is bad. Much has been made of the fact that the apparent main villain, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), is a mutilated sadist who indulges in cannibalism. Sure, this is disturbing, but it struck me as far less chilling than a later scene in which a cavalry officer (Barry Pepper) chooses to go along with the bad guys — because to do otherwise would mean admitting he and the Army just slaughtered hundreds of people for no remotely justifiable reason.
In other words, this is a post-modern revisionist Western decked out with slapstick, elaborate action gags, black humor, cinematically savvy references and spectacle. But, yes, this is a film in which John Reid/the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) starts out as something akin to Jimmy Stewart in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and finds himself pushed into being “the masked man” by a Tonto who really would have preferred Reid’s late brother in the role. Indeed, according to this film, Kemosabe means “wrong brother.” And this is the sort of thing that won’t sit well with purists.
But don’t sell the spectacle short. This is a movie that stages a huge train disaster in its earlier scenes, only to create an even more elaborate one in the film’s climax — thrillingly set to, yes, Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (with some embellishments from Hans Zimmer). These sequences are not only breathtaking, they’re masterpieces of action filmmaking (easily the best action scenes this summer). Everything is coherent and even the CGI enhancements look solid. All this blends with wild comedy and countless references to other movies — there’s even a gag straight out of Bob Hope’s Call Me Bwana (1963), of all things. For me at least, it all coalesces into a film that is at once divinely silly, surprisingly deep and deceptively complex. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Flat Rock Cinema Regal Biltmore Grande