Hire the director of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, the writers and editor and composer of those bloatedly irreverent adventures, even Tom Wilkinson as your smiling villain. Then cast Johnny Depp in the lead, complete with odd accent and heavy eye makeup.
What do you get? A reboot of “The Lone Ranger” that metaphorically drags this noble story – and literally drags its title character – through a steaming heap of horse droppings.
Tonto (Depp) has become the main figure in the tale and narrates it as a 100-year-old man during The Depression. When we see him in flashback in 1869, he’s a deranged Comanche who swears vengeance on white men for the elimination of his clan, which he inadvertently caused by betraying them as a young brave.
John Reid (Armie Hammer), who turns into the mysterious masked lawman, is a prissy boob who confuses the Wild West with a fantasy world where Justice Always Prevails.
And so it goes. Outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) kills John’s brother, as the legend requires, but he eats Dan’s heart raw. The great horse Silver has become a belching alcoholic that climbs trees, wearing The Lone Ranger’s white hat. (Tonto, inexplicably, has no horse: He’s a Comanche warrior without a mount. Well, he’s supposed to be crazy.)
Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, abetted in their misdeeds by non-“Pirates” scribe Justin Haythe, populate this story with meaningless and unnecessary characters, from a doltish Army captain made up to look like George Custer (Barry Pepper) to a whorehouse madam whose ivory leg shoots derringer bullets (Helena Bonham Carter). In one scene, carnivorous rabbits turn on one of their own kind and rip its body apart. Say what?
Director Gore Verbinski aims for a mood that combines savagery, silliness and the supernatural, as the “Pirates” movies do. But those were intended to spoof a genre nobody had ever taken seriously since its cinematic beginnings.
What’s the point of deconstructing the legend of The Lone Ranger, who once “led the fight for law and order in the early West”? (Or so the radio serial unironically declared.) Why turn Reid and Tonto into a bickering odd couple who sound like Jewish comics trading quips? They’re not even friends: In the last line of the film, Reid asks his sidekick, “Do you know what ‘Tonto’ means in Spanish?” (The unspoken answer: “Stupid.”)
Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli provides the movie’s main virtue: beautiful long shots of Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah, where John Ford made his classic westerns, plus other parts of the Southwest. And a few actors do play their underwritten characters completely straight, to good effect.
Ruth Wilson has ferocious determination as Dan Reid’s widow, who has secretly loved brother-in-law John for years. Rock Hill’s Leon Rippy gets a touching moment as the old friend of the Reids who regrets selling them out to Cavendish. (Of course, a better movie would explain why he did so.)
Wilkinson, a railroad executive behind the skulduggery, exudes his usual quiet sliminess, though his casting takes away suspense. Fichtner adds menace as the deformed, cannibalistic Cavendish, but he and most supporting characters soon become clownish.
The incoherent finale involves two trains on various tracks and lots of slapstick combat, putting a final stamp of buffoonery on the picture. Here Verbinski finally introduces Rossini’s overture to “William TeIl,” one of the most stirring pieces of classical music and the theme to the “Lone Ranger” radio and TV shows. And he beats it to death, repeating sections and adding variations by Hans Zimmer.
To get the full flavor of the film, sit through all the credits. The now-ancient Tonto traipses into the desert, dressed in 1930s clothes and carrying a suitcase. He plods away from the camera for minutes on end, finally getting … nowhere at all. I can think of more interesting endings for this “Lone Ranger,” but none that are more fitting.
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