Like Superman, who’s also had a mega-budget revisiting this year, the Lone Ranger speaks to a part of the psyche in everyone that is still a kid in front of the television, in a magical land where it’s always 1955, glued to the screen unaware of anything but a stark, elemental fantasy unfolding on the screen. Herein lies a bald irony: whereas Superman is considered a vital enough exemplar of pop culture in spite of his completely fantastical nature – or perhaps because of it – to receive a sombre, self-serious blockbuster film this year, the Lone Ranger, who has roots in a Western mythology, the charm of which for people was once that it offered, however spuriously, the notion that Homeric drama had been a reality at some point in the recent past, now can only be used as fodder for pseudo-satire. The Lone Ranger, once described perfectly by critic Myron Meisel as a cut-rate gringo Zorro, was absurdly popular back when the Western genre itself was still popular: he was the Western hero transmuted into virtual myth, a perfect knight of frontier chivalry, equipped with taciturn Indian sidekick and white horse, evoking Don Quixote without the irony. Director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp reputedly had fond memories of the TV show, inspiring them to turn to it as a new franchise property after their last Pirates of the Caribbean collaboration, and the similarly comedic, entirely animated Western romp Rango (2011). As a follow-up to Depp’s similarly nostalgia-fuelled indulgence with the underrated Dark Shadows (2012), The Lone Ranger could have represented a chance for Verbinski to reorientate himself after the extremely wayward charms of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007), films which pushed the notion of cinema as theme park over cinema as story to an extreme.
Verbinski’s love of a Rube Goldberg-ish, mechanistic aesthetic, evident in his oeuvre since his first film Mouse Hunt (1997), is apparent not simply in visual gimmickry but in the narrative shape of his films, which are scarcely a series of linear propulsions, but elaborate devices in stories that become almost entirely discursive actions and gestures. But not the good kind of discursion: Verbinski is modern Hollywood’s exemplar of the anti-Howard Hawks. Hawks made action-adventure films that were pretexts for showing interesting personalities and the actors playing them in close, intensive interaction. Verbinski’s films rather confirm that every element, human, prop, and digital effect, is merely an appendage of a greater stunt. It might be unfair to kick a film when it’s down like this one is, but this film deserves to be kicked, repeatedly and viciously. I had hoped a change of subject and genre would push Verbinski back on track and give us the swinging neo-pulp yarn the Pirates of the Caribbean films never quite became. The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, quickly proves itself to be akin to an elaborate and fiendishly complex board game that’s been emptied out of the box but left as disparate pieces on the table-top, a mess of half-finished contraptions and gears that have no apparent purpose. Some critics have tried to give the film a fair shake by pointing out its honourable revisionist intentions and its messy inventiveness, qualities indeed I usually respond to. But The Lone Ranger left me cold; in fact there are hunks of ice roaming deep space warmer to this film than I am. It’s an action-comedy, but it’s scarcely funny, and it’s not exciting.
Every aspect of the film has been painted over with that specific gloss that only producer Jerry Bruckheimer with Disney’s money behind him seems able to manage anymore, and yet there’s no opportunity to enjoy the craftsmanship. The film casts likeable stars, including Depp, Armie Hammer in the title role, and talented thesps like Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, and Barry Pepper, all utterly wasted in a film that fails to tune into its human elements. The opening tries to set up a mood of faintly fantastical auto-nostalgia, in depicting a young fan (Mason Cook) of the just-premiered radio version of The Lone Ranger in 1933, entering a Wild West exhibit and finding Tonto (Depp), ancient and wizened, pretending to be a statue in a display case marked “The Noble Savage”. Never mind why Tonto’s in such a place or putting on such an act: there’s a hint of a kind of magic-realist joke in this, but the obviousness of the set-up and the lacks of the writing hardly obscure the fact that, in truth, it’s just a homage – and by that I mean rip-off – of The Princess Bride’s (1987) framing device, whereupon a know-it-all kid gets taught the real meaning of adventure, albeit with a satirical overtone and occasional meta-textual conceits, by an old coot. The Lone Ranger tosses a big action set-piece filled out with CGI right at you, being itself a repeat of the finale of The Legend of Zorro (2005), and can then only essentially repeat it as a climax except, well, done even bigger. Eastern lawyer John Reid (Hammer) is en route to a Western frontier town to help his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) enforce the law, but where John is a milquetoast with a yearning for his brother’s wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), Dan seems more the hero type. John is thrown into the company of Tonto, who’s hunting for the scar-faced assassin Butch Cavendish (Fichtner), being transported to the same frontier town as a prize by railway boss Cole (Tom Wilkinson) to exhibit his civilising influence. Tonto’s managed to get himself arrested and locked in the same rail car Cavendish is being transported in, intending to bust free and take his quarry’s life, but Reid’s awkward intervention plus the rescue party that spirits Cavendish away foils him, and Tonto and Reid find themselves chained together on a runaway train.
The duo survive the extremely improbable crash that results, of course, albeit with Tonto furious at Reid for forestalling his revenge. The Reids and fellow deputies give chase to Cavendish, and they are all “killed” in an ambush. Tonto, also looking for Cavendish, comes across the bodies and moves to bury them. But, obeying what he thinks are the commands of a white horse that might be a spirit avatar, and which will of course become known as Silver, Tonto uses ritual magic to revive John as a spirit walker, ennobled as a force for retribution and justice. The Lone Ranger is bald-faced in its general contempt for traditional Western heroics, in which hard people did hard things in a hard world, even as it quotes a couple of dozen older models when it feels like – dib of Ford here, dab of Leone there, Corbucci there, hell, even a bit of Alejandro Jodorowsky for good measure. You can tell that Verbinski and his Pirates of the Caribbean collaborators Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, working with Justin Haythe this time, thought they were doing something really clever and witty here, making fun of the shop-worn values and offensive cultural precepts of old Western fare. But all they end up with is a flaccid, cynical example of a brand of contemporary self-satisfaction, unable to construct a dialogue with the faded values of mouldy old pulp but equally unable to offer anything like coherent critique or sharp revision. It shouldn’t be particularly hard to recreate the Lone Ranger and Tonto as heroes as fit for a contemporary audience – they are after all both outsiders who become forces of good in the neutral zone between worlds – and yet the choices here betray a failure of focus and intent. Revisionism demands actual confrontation, and there’s no room for that in a summer blockbuster. One real shame is that Depp has featured in several of the best films of the last three decades about the woozy dissociation of modern America from its past and its dark side, and the formlessness that can grip its still-sparse interior fringes: Edward Scissorhands (1990), Arizona Dream (1992), Dead Man (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997), even his own The Brave (1996). One particular frustration of The Lone Ranger is that one can feel Depp trying to bring this influence to bear on a blockbuster, to make literally Dead Man + action!, but failing miserably. Depp himself is on auto-pilot. His characterisation of Tonto as a spacey outcast traumatised by the past recalls the same ploy used to explain his version of the Mad Hatter.
The template of the Bruckheimer action flick demands traditional hero’s journey stuff, but the impulses of the director, writers, and star are towards deconstruction and deliberate absurdity. The film almost reproduces the awkward dynamic of Michel Gondry’s ill-conceived The Green Hornet (2011), which similarly took a classic pulp crime-fighting duo and contrasted the innate talent of the ethnic sidekick with the white guy who only has wildly delusional enthusiasm on his side. Gondry’s film failed in large part because it neglected to properly differentiate its characters after making that immediate observation, both speaking and acting in the same pissy, smart-alec, one-upping fashion. This one fails because it doesn’t really know who its characters are. Is the resurrected Reid an otherworldly avatar for the spirit of justice, or just a dumb interloper who keeps getting lucky? Are we supposed to cheer when he pulls off improbably good shots, or smirk at having our cynical reflexes stroked? Is Tonto a knowing, wily figure, or a buffoon who chances his way through every situation? Verbinski and his collaborators can’t decide, and so they keep taking an each-way bet. What’s important to remember is that this sort of thing has been done before, and much better: it has spiritual links to Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (1965) and Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980), both films that memorably and deliciously mock their pulp forebears but also constructively mimic their storylines and general moral outlook, in making the legitimate if sarcastically made point that people still love the idea of heroism even if the world often conspires to make it seem absurd. Verbinski and crew, however, mock without really seeming to know where their ultimate point lies.
The Lone Ranger cost something like $250,000,000 to produce, but the sense that any of this was well-spent is lacking. Heaven’s Gate (1981) gave us a vibrant, organic-seeming version of a period Western landscape for its infamously profligate cost. This production is rife with CGI, but the ugly and alienating textures of the effects spoil the possibility for fun: moments that could be great, particularly the climactic moment when Reid mounts Silver and races across rooftops in chase of a train, fall flat because they look so cheesy. Similarly the finale, supposedly a tribute to Buster Keaton and The General (1927), offers none of the special frisson of Keaton’s physical gags because it’s so obviously a fake, video-game world we’re watching: compare and contrast to the infinitely superior variation on the same idea in Back to the Future Part III (1991). Or, even better, the finale of How the West Was Won (1962). This is the sort of movie where the word homage can be constantly uttered to describe various moments and motifs, and yet one still has the gnawing feeling that whoever made it hasn’t actually watched the films being quoted. Monument Valley is visited, but otherwise the film has no more flavour than an old RKO back-lot oatser. Story elements here don’t so much add up as crowd for space, like the passengers in A Night at the Opera’s (1935) stateroom scene. The film’s poster somewhat desperately sported Carter’s face in promise that there’s a major female antagonist here, but her character, a truculent brothel madam with a shotgun concealed in her wooden leg, is only featured in two scenes, a possibly great character treated as a non sequitir in a film that’s almost nothing but non sequitirs. Bruckheimer’s two big hits in a similar mould to this, The Mask of Zorro (1997) and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) both relied on the jolt of charisma and sex appeal provided by their female co-stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Keira Knightley, whereas here Wilson’s nominal heroine is colourless, her function in the drama superfluous and seemingly only really present to offer a sort of beard for Reid and Tonto’s bromance.
Perhaps the most offensive and irritating aspect of the film is how it keeps suspending its own internal logic. Tonto makes a point of beginning his narrative with a deliberate deconsecration, recounting how he and Reid robbed a bank together, to the boy’s shock and dispute, and so Tonto circles back to explain how they got to be in that position. Later, when it’s revealed why they actually rob the bank, the object of the robbery makes no sense: explosives, being kept in the vault, for some reason. The secret link between Cole and Cavendish – they’re actually brothers, who massacred Tonto’s village when they were much younger – is a major aspect of the plot, and it’s secret for a good reason. And yet late the film the pair are glimpsed speaking to each-other, in broad daylight in the middle of the town where Cole promised to hang Cavendish earlier in the film. Cole, who’s an executive with a major railroad, shoots his boss and makes himself the new director before a room of blue-blooded fellow executives. This action is ludicrous and seems to be present simply because the screenwriters once watched another film where a big baddie killed someone who disagrees with him. The storyline, whilst detectable, is both garbled and thin: it all revolves around a deposit of silver close to where Tonto’s village used to be. For some reason it’s taken the brothers Cole and Cavendish decades to get around to returning to exploit their find. A range war is in the offing: as in The Mask of Zorro, a long blonde-locked cavalry officer (Pepper) becomes a willing aide in malfeasance as the film tries to make a pro-Native American commentary on the west, but this remains less a subplot than a sort of sideshow attraction, with Tonto and Reid dodging getting caught up in the carnage.
Depp’s casting as Tonto brought out some knives from the professionally outraged, in spite of the film’s arch efforts to be even-handed. Most Westerns have offered a pro-Indian stance since the late ‘60s, and to pretend that The Lone Ranger is somehow original in this would be absurd. Verbinski’s approach to this element feels clumsy and sickly: a doomed charge by a Comanche war-band, far from gaining any tragic-noble sentiment, is dismissed as distraction from our heroes must extricate themselves, and another source of loud noise. Nor is the Lone Ranger allowed to rise to the stature he once had as a peacemaker and arbitrator. Now he’s just a dumb-lucky white guy picking up the pieces. The Lone Ranger’s approach to frontier struggles is in fact exactly the same as classic Westerns like The Plainsman (1936) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941), where race war is precipitated by greedy individuals playing both ends against the middle. The whole project becomes an interesting example of filmmakers trying to play a PC card and instead only seeming to end up being heartless and shallow in their historical sensibility. The Lone Ranger never quite becomes the kind of bad that makes me walk out on films: rather it keeps reeling along in a drunken distraction, fascinatingly and dynamically bad, constantly provoking wonder at how such a nominally talented, well-paid bunch of filmmakers could keep making such ineffectual choices. There are actual, occasional nuggets of amusement, as when Reid pretends to listen to the spirit-talk of a dead horse before bellowing at Tonto, and the William Tell Overture kicks in at what should be just the right moment. But The Lone Ranger is a disaster and a missed opportunity, make no mistake.