The verdict on “The Lone Ranger” and Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto? Ugh.
Gore Verbinski’s bloated, overlong, $250 million western comedy is like watching an elephant tap dance in your living room: Everything gets trampled and the dancing’s not very good. The iconic image finally shows up two hours and 15 minutes in: The masked hero on a rearing stallion, crying “Hi-yo Silver, away!” as the galloping cadences of “The William Tell Overture” fill the soundtrack. By then, it’s too late.
Depp and Verbinski, of course, collaborated on the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, a series that cemented the actor’s standing as the hipster Puck of his generation while establishing the director as Hollywood’s go-to guy for smart big-budget mayhem. The new film attempts to import those high spirits into the western genre, but like city slickers at a dude ranch, the filmmakers shoot themselves in the foot again and again.
But the pirate movie has always skated on the edge of self-parody — go watch Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks if you don’t believe me — while the western genre has underpinnings of seriousness, even in comedies and B movies, that befit a national myth. On some level, a horse opera has to Mean It, and meaning it is definitely not what these guys are about. “The Lone Ranger” is a franchise so long dormant — a radio series that moved onto TV in the 1950s, the property last saw the big screen in 1981’s ill-begotten “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” — that Verbinski and his writers think the only way out is to reduce the story to ironic rubble.
So we get Armie Hammer as a bumbling tenderfoot of a Lone Ranger, an Eastern-educated lawyer (real name, John Reid) who returns to his dusty hometown of Colby, Texas, to bring law and order. There he proves no match for his tough sheriff brother Dan (James Badge Dale), let alone the villainous outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, acting with a prosthetic harelip) or duplicitous civic leader Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who stands to make a killing when the railroad comes through.
Anyone who knows his classic westerns will recognize the riff on 1962’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: John = Jimmy Stewart, Dan = John Wayne. The framing device of “The Lone Ranger,” in which an ancient, latex-encrusted Tonto (Depp) tells the “real story” to a little boy (Bryant Prince) in a traveling Old West show, has its roots in 1970’s “Little Big Man,” a neglected (and often very funny) western that was very clear about the genre’s lies and history’s truths. And there’s no denying that Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli reclaim Utah’s Monument Valley and other Southwestern locations as gorgeous epic stages for the action.
It’s what happens on those stages that seems bizarrely small. Once Dan is out of the story, John finds himself forced by the much-savvier Tonto into the role of avenging Texas Ranger, complete with domino mask to unconvincingly disguise his identity. That the movie has no idea what to do with this gimmick — other than to have the other characters regularly ask “What’s with the mask?” — only hints that some pop franchises should be left to molder in peace.
“The Lone Ranger” tries to justify its expense and endless running time (149 minutes, but it feels like several weeks) with hyperactive, bigger-than-big action scenes that play especially well to the global audiences that now make up Hollywood’s most reliable source of profits (and that only tend to work with US crowds when they involve characters we care about). Most of them involve trains. There are times when the breathless forward momentum of these sequences makes you temporarily forget the yawning hollowness of everything else. But, really, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Six Flags.
Hammer has been a very good actor in supporting roles (he played the Winklevi in “The Social Network” and was Hoover’s boyfriend in “J. Edgar”), but he’s a washout here, bland and peevish and uninteresting. It’s probably not his fault. Like Superman, the Lone Ranger was invented in an era when pop heroes didn’t need psychology — they just needed to be heroes — and it takes some lifting to retrofit them for an era of Dark Knights and troubled Spider-Men. “Man of Steel” huffs and puffs fairly convincingly; “The Lone Ranger” doesn’t even try. Nor does it bother to have much fun with the secondary characters, a drab lot all around.
The one exception, Helena Bonham Carter as a brothel madam with a deadly scrimshaw leg, doesn’t get enough screen time, and Ruth Wilson as Dan’s wife (and John’s beloved — another John Ford nod, this time to “The Searchers”) gets less than that. A figure like Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, who ended up shanghaiing the “Pirates” series for herself, is sorely missed, and Barry Pepper as an Army general who I think is supposed to be Custer represents a major lost opportunity. There are ways to have your fun and anchor it, too, but “The Lone Ranger” blows across the screen like sagebrush, aimlessly and with a lot more noise. Even “Rango,” Verbinski and Depp’s animated doodle about a gun-slinging chameleon, carried more weight.
Speaking of Depp, this may be the moment where the culture turns on him. The actor has always made a point of admiring Marlon Brando, and with “The Lone Ranger” he seems to be moving into the late-Brando phase of his career: lazy cash-grab performances that coast on the fumes of our affection. Some of us cringed when we heard Depp was going to play Tonto, but there was at least the hope that he could fill this sketchy, culturally outdated second-banana role with subversiveness and wit. Sort of like the way Robert Downey Jr. nuanced “Tropic Thunder” to both defuse and comment on blackface.
The wit is there, but forget about subversion. Depp’s Tonto is caked with white face paint and black stripes; he wears a funny hat with a stuffed crow that may or may not be his spirit guide. The look is based on a painting by Kirby Sattler called “I Am Crow” — Depp’s Tonto is a Comanche — that in any event isn’t meant to be ethnographically accurate. The character has been rewritten as the shrewd, cynical sidekick to the clueless hero, but mostly Depp mugs, widens his eyes, and shoots off whimsical one-liners in Injun-speak. He gets laughs, some nervous, some genuine, but if you’re going to play Native American in the 21st century, Jack Sparrow on downers isn’t going to cut it.
In the end, it’s probably not worth getting too riled about. For an indigenous Native American population that has a long history of being screwed over as a people and as a culture, “The Lone Ranger” is just one more minor indignity. The greater embarrassment is that so many millions of dollars have been wasted on an entertainment that feels so smug, so pointless, and so thunderously empty.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.