A fun, if disposable, update on the classic western radio and TV series
There isn’t much to celebrate in Gore Verbinski’s helter-skelter mash-up of the Lone Ranger story. But, at the very least, this wildly erratic production deserves a measure of credit for maintaining some kind of oddball comic momentum over the long haul (2 hours, 29 minutes) of its mock-epic Western-movie action.
The story of the Lone Ranger, that masked Western hero with an Indian sidekick named Tonto, gained wide popularity first as a radio drama in the 1930s, and then as a TV series in the 1950s. The Verbinski rendition, not exactly a remake and only partly a revisionist update, is a galloping circus of parody, silly satire and outlandish extravagances of roughhouse comedy and movie action.
Written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the story is disposable and inconsequential. Most of the best stuff in the film is bizarre action, exuberant grotesquerie, cartoonish sight-gags and stunts, FX action involving vintage trains, etc., etc.
Johnny Depp plays Tonto here, and he’s central to the film’s peculiar appeal even though not really as dominant a figure as the film’s publicity might lead you to expect. (Depp is the movie’s star, but his weirdly re-imagined Tonto is still a sidekick figure.)
With his dead-bird headgear and assorted mystical and mythical trappings, Depp’s Tonto can seem like a rather Hunter S. Thompsonized version of the character played by the Native American actor Jay Silverheels in the TV series.
But in his most elaborate action scenes, he seems to be channeling the deadpan stunts and intrepid spirit of Buster Keaton.
Revisionist farce shows a less pungent side with the film’s Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer), a neurotic and somewhat narcissistic do-gooder who is little more than a mock-heroic accessory for the action sequences. If there’s satiric intent here, it seems aimed more at the paper-thin characterizations of the least memorable of B-movie western heroes than at anything in the various incarnations of the Lone Ranger.
The fiendish Butch Cavendish (played with perverse relish by William Fichtner) is more fascinating and memorable than the Ranger; he emerges, perhaps, as the picture’s “secret” favorite, but the script does nothing to make any sense of the guy’s ferocious, all-purpose villainy.
Helena Bonham Carter is terrific and underutilized as the one-legged matron of a dance hall for scarlet women.
Barry Pepper is well-cast as a General Custer figure, but too little develops with him as well.
It’s not nearly as bad as some reviewers have been saying, but if you’d prefer something a little better in a recent Western, I’d recommend the following: the Verbinski/Depp animated Western Rango; the indie Dead Man’s Burden (now on DVD); the July 1 episode of Longmire (with strong Native American actors and themes) on A&E. Or, in related older items, Jim Jarmusch’s anti-Western Dead Man (with Depp) or the Republic Studios cliffhanger serial version of The Lone Ranger shown in theaters in 1938.