NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Every year, in the spirit of the Wicker Man, Hollywood offers up one blockbuster it’s all right to hate. Last year, it was John Carter. I liked that, with reservations. And I love The Lone Ranger, with reservations.
It may well be the effect of lowered expectations going in, but for me this revival of the radio/movie/TV serial cowboy hero plays better than many of the less-despised franchise pictures of the year. In a season where Superman snaps a villain’s neck, a hero who insists on justice before vengeance and shoots guns out of baddies’ hands strikes me as refreshing. And, in contrast with the militarism of Pacific Rim, there’s some bite to this vision of the West – composed of elements from The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Little Big Man and Once Upon a Time in the West – where a good man has to put on a mask because capitalism (the railroad), exploitation of mineral resources (silver mining) and appalling crime are in cahoots and the US army would rather back them up than admit a hideous mistake.
It’s not subtle and may be more a question of establishing the sort of corrupt world (like Zorro’s oppressed California or the Scarlet Pimpernel’s French Terror) where a good guy has to wear a mask than of indicting the lasting evils of America. But there’s a strong, insightful historical element, which blends one of the script’s best jokes (‘you do know what tonto means in Spanish?’) with a genuinely tragic arc that explains why the Lone Ranger’s faithful companion has become a holy fool. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is in a tradition of Native American eccentric mysticism seldom seen in Westerns – remember the ‘contrary’ in Little Big Man? – and has a deadpan dignity, despite the dead bird on his head. If the film is offensive to any ethnicity, it’s white Americans – here, generally depicted as money-obsessed cannibal scum out to rape the land and murder its original population.
It seems to have been felt that director Gore Verbinski was trying for a landlocked version of his initially-successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise… but the tone of this is closer to the Verbinski-Depp acid trip spaghetti western cartoon Rango. In 1933, a little boy in a Lone Ranger outfit finds an aged Tonto (Depp) on display in a Wild West dime show (declaration – this sort of scene always makes me cry) and the old man tells the story of the Lone Ranger’s origin (pretty close to previous radio/movie versions) with Princess Bride-like interruptions and revisions, and slight-of-hand whereby a bag of peanuts given to Tonto in 1933 is passed on by him in 1868 without comment. The dead bird is a running gag that becomes poignant when we get to the flashback that explains how one young Indian’s bad trade has put the entire region out of joint, as epitomised by cannibal rabbits swallowing scorpions and even the Lone Ranger’s survival of a fatal wound to become a spirit-walker.
The weakest element is the treatment of John Reid (Armie Hammer), aka the Lone Ranger, who is presented as a little too foolish to convince. Initially, Reid is a Jimmy Stewart-type by-the-book lawyer contrasted with his heroic Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale), with whose wife (Ruth Wilson) he is in love a la John Wayne in The Searchers. Even after Dan has been killed by outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) – who eats Dan’s heart and has a reputation as a wendigo – and John has taken up the mask, teamed up with Tonto and the supernaturally clever horse Silver and become the vigilante hero, the film is too prone to undercut his heroism. When he rears up and delivers the line ‘hi ho Silver, away’, spoilsport Tonto tells him never to do that again and he’s too often the butt of slapstick gags.
Another recurrent problem in contemporary reimaginings of great hero teams (cf: Sherlock Holmes, The Green Hornet) is that legendary fast friends tend to become squabbling, unwilling partners on the lines of the teams in comical spaghetti westerns (from the Trinity films to Shanghai Noon). Hammer and Depp are funny together and separately, but it’d be nice if our heroes had each other’s backs, weren’t continually being mistaken for a gay couple (this gag surely needs retiring) and showed that commitment to each other which can put the ills of the world in sharp relief. Think of the way in Murder By Decree, Christopher Plummer’s Holmes is jarred out of his gloom at the awful corruption of Victorian London by James Mason’s stalwart, good-hearted Watson …
The film is too long, but the script (by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) has a genuinely intricate storyline that gives its heroes a rooting interest, and pits them against a varied triumvirate of baddies: Fichtner’s scarfaced cannibal vermin, Tom Wilkinson’s money-obsessed despoiler and Barry Pepper’s Custer-like fanatic Cavalry officer. It’s a light-hearted, serial adventure but its villains are formidable: Fichtner’s delight in eating Dan’s heart to torment John is shocking, but Pepper also gets a terrific signature moment of rage and disgust as one of the Indians he’s massacred dares spill blood on his immaculate white gloves. Helena Bonham Carter is fun as a madame with a shotgun in her scrimshaw prosthetic leg (it’s suggested that Butch ate her real one) but Wilson prevents this from being entirely a boys’ film with her spirited, intrepid and non-token participation in rescuing herself and fighting off evil.
Hans Zimmer contributes a score that plays with Morricone-style Western themes to stress the sunbaked, hallucinogenic stretches, but – in contrast with The Green Hornet, a film that failed to realise its theme tune was the strongest aspect of its franchise – the real musical star of the film is Rossini (and arranger Geoff Zanelli). An early teaser of the ‘William Tell Overture’ reminds us of its place in the legend of the Lone Ranger, but the climax – which stirs a bit of Buster Keaton’s The General into the kind of derring-do seen in 1940s serials and ‘80s action movies – is edited perfectly to an arrangement of the whole piece that may be the single best action scene I’ve seen all year, a symphony of stuntwork with multiple trains, intersecting (and crashing) characters and sub-plots, horses galloping over and through carriages, a perfectly-placed silver bullet and an opportunity to show off the sort of selfless heroism this brand of pulp adventure ought to be about but too often isn’t.