The Lone Ranger has really fallen off the map in recent years. Much like The Saint and The Shadow, the Ranger is an awkward fit for modern audiences. (It doesn’t help that his horse-riding antics and Western milieu have been declining in popularity for decades.) Though a celebrated radio character, the Lone Ranger has endured largely thanks to a TV series starring Clayton Moore that ran from 1949 to 1957 (my baby boomer father was a big fan) before living on for years in syndication. Truth be told, I only caught fleeting glimpses of the show and was never all that enamored with the Ranger, Tonto and their Wild West escapades.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t looking forward to Disney’s big-screen reboot of The Long Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski (The Pirates of the Caribbean movies) and starring The Social Network’s Armie Hammer as the Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto. Pre-release hype had Verbinski shooting the action live and without CGI enhancement when possible, even going so far as to lay miles of working railroad track for staging elaborate train stunts. This being a Jerry Bruckheimer production, I figured on a high-energy, alternately dumb and clever (but mostly dumb) action flick that’s looking to win nothing more than the smiles of the audience. And that’s pretty much what the filmmakers deliver, even if it adds up to less than its parts.
It’s unfortunate that The Lone Ranger commits the fatal sin of self-importance, its bloated plot and running time (150 minutes — bring a pillow to sit on) finally proving more exhausting than exhilarating. The film begins in San Francisco in 1933 (the opening shot of an under-construction Golden Gate bridge is breathtaking), where a small child encounters an elderly Tonto working in a carnival attraction. The movie then flashes back to the 1860s, as the aging Indian tells of his adventures with the Ranger, all of which involve some combination of trains, horses and gunfire.
The Lone Ranger is overly complex, and piles on the characters — Tom Wilkinson as a devious railroad tycoon, William Fichtner as the heart-eating bandit who kills the Ranger’s brother, Ruth Wilson as the dead bro’s widow, Helena Bonham Carter as the owner/operator of the local brothel, Barry Pepper as a U.S. Military commander, plus assorted henchmen, Indian chiefs, squaws and soldiers — in the service of a convoluted plot that involves the burgeoning transatlantic railroad, a mother lode of silver, a past Indian slaughter, the coming war between the white man and the Comanche, and the corporate politics of greedy railroad tycoons.
Oh, and the development of the Ranger from a doofy, bookish lawyer who hates guns into a bringer of masked justice that Disney hopes will power profitable sequels. It’s fitting that I leave the Ranger for last, as he’s the most boring character in the movie save Wilson’s drab widow. Hammer is game and attacks the role with gusto, but for all his manly good looks and huge white teeth he’s an actor who comes across as oddly cookie-cutter — something that worked in his favor while playing the well-connected but not overly innovative Winklevoss twins in The Social Network.
As for Depp as Tonto, his performance seems unmoored from reality — which might just be what Depp is like these days. Though amusing at times, Tonto struck me as more of an acting experiment than a flesh-and-blood character. But by the time the movie fires up “The William Tell Overture” and rides guns a-blazin’ into its action-packed finale, I doubt many in the audience will be sitting there pondering Depp’s acting strategies in developing the character.
Though beautifully photographed (John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley is on full display throughout) and occasionally exhibiting charm and excitement, The Lone Ranger was ultimately just too much. I appreciate the effort of the filmmakers to make something a little more varied and less CGI-dependent than the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters, but it didn’t quite work for me. That said, I suspect that longtime fans of the Ranger will find plenty to cheer this July 4th weekend.