The Lone Ranger (2013)
“Never Take Off the Mask.”
Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner
Synopsis: Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.
Back in 2003, Gore Verbinski revisited the pirate movie – a moribund genre which some considered jinxed – and created a multi-billion dollar phenomenon with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Now he’s turned to the Western, another genre that has languished in the doldrums since the 1970s, with The Lone Ranger, a reworking of the popular 1950s radio and TV series. But unlike the universal acclaim that greeted the Pirates movie, The Lone Ranger has received a near-universal panning from the critics, even though this later movie is every bit the equal of the first Pirates movie. So why should this be? Well, for a start, for most people under 45, if they know of the Lone Ranger at all, it’s as a shadowy figure from an ancient past – which is not a good thing when the target demographic of any multiplex movie these days is under 24 years of age. The Lone Ranger is also something of a straightforward hero, unburdened by the kind of psychological angst of today’s super-heroes which seems to be so popular. Then, of course, there’s the contentious issue of a Native American being played by a white man with a dead bird on his head…
The story of the Lone Ranger begins in 1869, with idealistic pacifist John Reid (Armie Hammer) travelling to Colby to be reunited with his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), Dan’s wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and their young boy, Danny (Bryant Prince). There’s some history there between John and Rebecca, which could become a problem were it not for the fact that Dan gets killed fairly early on. On the train with John were two prisoners, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a hare-lipped killer, and Tonto (Johnny Depp), a strange, slightly bonkers Indian. Despite Dan’s best efforts, Cavendish made his escape, and it’s while chasing after him and his gang that Dan and six other members of a posse are gunned down. John is the seventh member of the posse, but his wound isn’t fatal, and he’s found by Tonto who nurses him back to health after interpreting a wild white horse’s unusual devotion to John as a sign from the Great Beyond that he is a Spirit Walker who cannot be killed, and therefore might be valuable to him in his, as yet unrevealed, quest.
It turns out that Cavendish has a brother, Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who is an official for the railroad that is under construction through Commanche territory, and for whom Cavendish begins murdering settlers so that the Commanches will be blamed, thus giving the government an excuse for reneging on their peace treaty with them. Cole is based in the Reids’ home town, and he’s quick to move in on Rebecca in Dan’s absence. As John resumes his pursuit of Cavendish, both to bring him to justice and avenge the death of his brother, and Cole pursues his own plan to control the railroads, the two strands of the story slowly come together to form a spectacular finale.
It was perhaps inevitable that in his attempt to revive the Western as a popular genre, Verbinski would revisit the themes which served it best in the past. The spreading of the rail-roads and the implications relating to power and progress that come with it, have provided ample material for Westerns at least as far back as John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924, and while The Lone Ranger might be open to accusations of a lack of originality in this respect, it can at least point to its re-imagining of the invention of the Lone Ranger with some justification. Rather than portraying Tonto as a slavishly devoted adjunct of the Lone Ranger, their relationship here is often seen as adversarial, even though they always end up on the same side sooner or later. However, the movie does perhaps spread its net a little too wide by allowing itself to be distracted by subjects as important as the ill-treatment and murder of Native Indians by the US Army. Topics like this are surely too important to be treated as little more than a minor sub-plot in a knockabout blockbuster. This sudden shift in tone, which occurs a couple of times in the movie, is a little too jarring to work successfully, and the distractions from the main plot account for the film’s over-long running time of 149 minutes.
The film’s influences are amusingly referenced throughout. Much of the action takes places in Monument Valley, a favourite location of Ford’s, and the attack on the ranch by white men posing as Commanches is similar to that in Ford’s The Searchers, while the relationship between John Reid and his older brother echoes that of James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And as well as it’s soundtrack containing echoes of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, The Lone Ranger makes use of such familiar props from the Italian’s films as a pocket watch and a journey across the desert under the protection of a ladies umbrella. But these references are always worked into the main thrust of the action, rather than requiring scenes to be constructed for the sole purpose of incorporating them, so that The Lone Ranger establishes and maintains its own character.
Although Armie Hammer is the ostensible leading man, it is, of course, Johnny Depp’s movie, and in Tonto he creates a reliably off-kilter character who is far removed from the dubious swaggering charms of Captain Jack Sparrow, and yet retains the same deviousness. Hammer’s task is fairly thankless in the light of this, and despite Depp’s poker-faced delivery, Hammer constantly finds himself overshadowed in their scenes together, despite delivering a decent enough performance. The duo does manage to generate some chemistry together and, had the movie’s box office performance not been hampered by the unaccountably hostile reception from many critics, they could have developed into a solid duo in any forthcoming sequels, given the opportunity.
To its credit, The Lone Ranger makes only sparing use of the instantly recognisable images and quotes from the original series, with the William Tell Overture theme music only kicking in for the exhilarating (and hair-raising) finale. But when it does finally arrive it’s enough to send an anticipatory shiver down the spine of even those (like me) who never saw the TV series. Quite how that works, I don’t know, but there it is, and it’s a measure of the quality of The Lone Ranger that it succeeds in doing so. So don’t listen to the blinkered views of those with agendas or blunt axes. Rent The Lone Ranger and enjoy the ride…