By Preston Wilder
They desperately need to make these things shorter. That’s the overall lesson to be gleaned from The Lone Ranger, the latest teaming of Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski after Pirates of the Caribbean and, more significantly, Rango. The film has an antic spirit and lots of pleasurable detail – but it’s finally too baggy, too exhausting, and (like Man of Steel, another recent behemoth) about an hour too long.
Verbinski is by no means a hack. His blockbusters come with startling cartoonish images, stylistic signatures like an unexpected dark streak (Lone Ranger has a ‘12’ rating, mostly for a villain with barbaric habits) and a delight in engineering slapstick set-pieces that’s been there since his debut, the 1997 Mouse Hunt. There’s a long sequence early in The Lone Ranger with our heroes Tonto (Johnny Depp) and John Reid, a.k.a. the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer), battling a gang of outlaws while also chained together on a runaway train that’s steaming towards the end of the line – and the scene is almost as exuberant in its choreography as the escape from the cannibals in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It’s not just action; Verbinski likes contraptions, like Jean-Pierre Jeunet of Delicatessen fame. There are hooks and beams and pulleys. Heavy things fall, setting off other things. It’s a comedy of domino effects and split-second timings.
Plot, of course, is irrelevant, except to note that LR and Tonto go after the men who killed our hero’s brother (I say ‘hero’ but Tonto is actually the heart of the movie, and Depp’s is the only name above the title) and uncover a conspiracy. The whole film is supposedly a tale told by an elderly Tonto to a little boy in a fairground, a framing device that recalls The Princess Bride, then – as the body count mounts and the kid gets increasingly distraught – also recalls Tarsem Singh’s underrated The Fall from a few years ago; and of course the device of an elderly Indian reminiscing from behind old-age makeup also recalls Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man.
Film buffs will emit little squeals of recognition throughout The Lone Ranger. The score channels Ennio Morricone, and the plot has the cynicism of spaghetti Westerns (see e.g. The Great Silence). One supporting actor (Leon Rippy) is a dead ringer for old Western stalwart Jack Elam. The notion of a smart-aleck Indian (I think we can ignore ‘Native American’ in this context) subverting the “stupid white man” is a direct nod to the 1995 Dead Man, in which Depp played whitey. Depp himself, meanwhile, echoes the kind of character he played in Benny and Joon back in the day – a recessive loner with a fondness for pantomime, a nice change from the action heroes he’s been playing lately.
Tonto is a deadpan comic in ironic whiteface, scattering bird-seed for the benefit of a dead crow he wears on his head. He slaps the Lone Ranger, then inscrutably explains: “Bird angry”. He sniffs the air, then asks: “Do you have cat?”. He watches Silver the horse getting drunk, then muses: “Nature is indeed out of balance”. Depp and Hammer have good chemistry – the latter clean-cut and accident-prone – and there’s something Don Quixotic in the image of the pair riding through a vast sun-baked desert beneath a tiny umbrella.
There are lots of eye-catching images here; they’re Verbinski’s bread and butter. At one point, LR regains consciousness to find himself on a tiny platform at the top of an absurdly high ladder in the middle of the desert – a total non sequitur (he’s back on terra firma in the next shot), but clearly they couldn’t resist that surreal visual gag. The film is also full of weird peripheral detail: a cross-dressing outlaw, a villain who’s apparently a “gelding”, Helena Bonham Carter as a madam with an ivory leg. But of course the whole idea of a Lone Ranger movie is silly, because the ‘masked man’ means little to the multiplex audience (the TV show came out in the 1950s). As for Tonto, not only is the notion of a faithful Indian sidekick outdated but the notion of a subversive, post-modern Indian sidekick is also outdated; Dead Man, as already mentioned, came out nearly 20 years ago.
Bottom line? If you’re telling a tale with no obvious point, for god’s sake make it quick. It’s summer, and the audience is pliable; we don’t mind an air-conditioned break with some gaudy baubles and the cinematic equivalent of strawberry ice-cream. Besides, by the standards of summer blockbusters, Lone Ranger has both edge and personality. But how much can a person take? Reversal piles upon reversal, then there’s a firing squad and a Mexican stand-off, then the Big Climax featuring not one but two locomotives to the strains of ‘The William Tell Overture’ – which of course was also the Lone Ranger’s theme tune in the old TV Western, but the film’s affection is decidedly back-handed. At the very end, LR rears up his horse and yells “Hi ho Silver!”, but Tonto promptly nips it in the bud: “Don’t ever do that again”. At the end of a 90-minute movie, that might’ve added a cool final touch to a hip, sardonic joke. After 150 minutes, it’s more like insult to injury.
DIRECTED BY Gore Verbinski
STARRING Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson
US 2013 149 mins