Like Superman before him, the Lone Ranger has a long media history, first hitting the airwaves in 1933. Unlike Clark Kent, however, the legend has been allowed to fade and Gore Verbinski’s elaborate $250 mill. production is a movie with no fan base to speak of. A massive production with one of the squarest and most awkward heroes imaginable (Armie Hammer of THE SOCIAL NETWORK), based on a character largely unknown to younger viewers. For example, few seem to know that the character’s signature tune has always been The Wilhelm Tell Overture, which surprised me. But then, I grew up with the series.
Plagued with production and budgetary woes from the very outset, the project was almost cancelled several times and its initial release date delayed. When finally released in the US on July 3rd, it was to scathing reviews and was an instant commercial flop. This is a pity. I, for one, find it one of the most enjoyable and entertaining blockbusters of the year and hopefully, in years to come, it will be better understood and reevaluated as the semi-masterpiece it really is.
For those who remember the original characters, Tonto (Johnny Depp) in this version is not the Masked Man’s obedient lackey, but a wandering spirit on his own quest for justice, driven mad by ancient sorrow. Young lawman John Reid – who is to become the Lone Ranger – has traveled west to join his Texas Ranger brother (James Badge Dale), and first encounters Tonto shackled in the train, held prisoner by the savage outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).
Tonto is freed, but Cavendish escapes, rejoins his outlaw band and proceeds to terrorize the region. A “wendigo“, as Tonto calls him, and carries a silver bullet to put him down. Yet we come to see the outlaw as a manifestation of the American psyche, like the greedy railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson) he secretly serves.
An attempt was made to transpose the character from black-and-white TV to the big screen in 1981, which failed dismally. Not only was the movie weak, but the message of a Native American devotedly serving a white master didn’t go over too well after Watergate and the Vietnam War. How best to adapt the story to present day, multiethnic America – after 9/11, the recent financial meltdown, sequestration, and the Occupy Movement – that was the question. And the filmmakers have done a fine job, in my opinion. Blockbuster action, thrilling fight scenes, great shoot-outs – albeit with low-caliber weapons – some decent slapstick and a good spattering of ironic repartee. “The United States Army!”, says Reid, “Finally, someone who’ll listen to reason!”
The movie begins in 1933 at the Old West Museum in San Francisco, where a very old and wrinkled Tonto – still with white face paint and a dead raven in his headdress – is displayed in a glass showcase against a colorful western backdrop – as an example of the “Noble Savage“. There he narrates the story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy, giving him the real scoop on How the West was Won.
This Lone Ranger begins as a good man, unknowingly serving corrupt masters. By the end of the picture, his values have flipped and he has taken on the persona of a kind of American Robin Hood, an involuntary outlaw who turns against greed and the exertion of brutality for its own sake, and learns how to exercise moral authority.
Hammer is perfect as the clumsy, studious peacekeeper who gradually becomes a modest, matter-of-fact gunslinger. Tonto’s eccentricity is somewhat reminiscent of his performances as Jack Sparrow, but no one can get more out of stony-faced silence than Johnny Depp. There’s a fun cameo from Helena Bonham-Carter, playing a one-legged brothel madam who definitely “shoots from the hip”.
Verbinski has given his characters time to evolve and interact – they are so much more than just your standard muscle-bound superheroes. Visually spectacular, filming was done on locations in Cowboy Land: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, and the cinematography (courtesy of DP Bojan Bazelli) is glorious. Musically-speaking, Hans Zimmer clearly had a whale of a time with the score – lavish and bombastic, already available on CD.
My only critique of the film is that it seriously lags in the middle, which slows down its momentum. Apart from that, I thought it was a well-spent two and a half hours – which is more than I can say for the current crop of blockbuster fare. One possible reason for the USA’s general rejection of the film could be due to the fact that it turns all the old, glorified Wild West mythology on its head, and cynically shows us how little has changed. Corporate interests prevailed then, as now; cynically protected by the US Army. Ironic that Disney has spent over $200 million unwittingly endorsing the message!
THE LONE RANGER (USA, 2013); Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures; Running time: 149 mins; Director: Gore Verbinski; Writers (screenplay): Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio; Main cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham-Carter, James Badge Dale; Cinematographer: Bojan Bazelli; Music: Hans Zimmer; Release dates: July 3 (US), August 8 (Germany)