A ridiculously expensive Western from the creative team that brought us the “Pirates of the Caribbean movies”, “The Lone Ranger” has already been declared a box-office bomb. It's based on a fictional hero of the Old West who first appeared on a radio show in 1933. A TV series following the adventures of the Lone Ranger, his steed, Silver, and his trusted Native-American sidekick, Tonto, finished airing in 1957. So it's perhaps unsurprising that a character who had his day in the sun roughly half a century ago has failed to capture the imagination of today's moviegoers. That's a shame, because this is basically 2013's version of “John Carter”, a flop that's a lot better than you've heard.
It's also very strange, as we learn in the very first scene. At a carnival in San Francisco in 1933, a young boy named Will (Mason Elston Cook) encounters what at first seems like a mannequin dressed up to look like a Comanche warrior. Then the mannequin comes to life and introduces himself as an ancient Tonto (Johnny Depp). The movie occasionally cuts back to young Will and old Tonto, and sometimes this framing device seems like a convenient way to smooth over holes in the story, like when a jailbreak happens off-screen and is never fully explained. But ultimately these scenes are necessary because they give the movie a haunting quality; they remind us that we're seeing this story through the eyes of one of the last surviving members of a decimated tribe.
Tonto recounts how he befriended and partnered up with lawyer-turned-outlaw John Reid, aka the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer), when the pair helped track down the murderous Butch Cavendish gang in Texas in 1869. Depp and Hammer (who, despite the title, is playing second fiddle) have great screen chemistry. It doesn't hurt that the movie they're in shows off every penny of its considerable production costs (reportedly more than $225 million). Working with Depp for the fifth time, director Gore Verbinski brings a playful sense of homage and inventiveness to the material. Fans of the unforgettable film scores composed by Ennio Morricone for Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone will get a kick out of the familiar twangs of an electric guitar heard often on the “Lone Ranger” soundtrack. Verbinski serves up one distinct action scene after another. The chase scene where Reid first meets Tonto and Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) is like a live-action version of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, while a terrifying attack on a homestead halfway through the movie pays homage to John Ford's “The Searchers” and Leone's “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
Like the classic Westerns it references, “The Lone Ranger” is often violent and scary. Parents of young kids will probably want to know going in that Cavendish is a sadist and a cannibal, and while we never actually see him eating another man's heart, it's strongly implied at one point. This scene is soon followed by a very amusing scene between Tonto and a white spirit horse, and the way the movie shifts from dark to light-hearted is occasionally jarring. It's also maybe a little too long. Butch could easily have been killed by Tonto at the 90-minute mark, but instead the movie keeps going for another hour, becoming a wider portrait of American corruption and evil. Still, I was mostly entertained throughout the two and a half hour running time, and the climax, scored to Rossini's exhilarating “William Tell Overture”, is the highlight of the picture.
Page 2 of 2 - More than the extended running time and jarring tone issues, a bigger problem for some people is the casting of Depp; in other words, the casting of a white actor in a Native American role. I personally didn't have a problem with him. The filmmakers have wisely kept him out of shots featuring Native-American actors, and once I got past the silly black crow on his head, this quickly became one of my favorite performances of the year. Captain Jack Sparrow's devil-may-care smile is almost completely absent, but Tonto is a very funny character in his own right. Depp shows a flair for silent comedy worthy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. And even that stupid crow pays off in a flashback to Tonto's childhood that reveals where the filmmakers' sympathies lie. After his whole village has been wiped out because he made a bad trade with two merciless white men, we see Tonto lifting the dead crow out of a river. Like “Django Unchained”, “The Lone Ranger” invites us to rethink traditional depictions of American history.
Overall, I'd say this is one of the more entertaining Westerns I've seen since “Back to the Future Part III”. Imagine if Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen had eaten people's hearts out and you'll have a good idea of the cinematic experience “The Lone Ranger” provides. The two movies even share a similar climax, each showing a train sailing off an unconnected bridge. Instead of time travel, the climax of “The Lone Ranger” ends with an exquisite moment of poetic justice that gave me goosebumps.
“The Lone Ranger' will be playing through July 16 at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State Street. Showtime is 7:30pm on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday and 2pm on Sunday. Tickets are $6.
Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He lives in Wichita.