There’s a decidedly old school charm to The Lone Ranger that works in its favour most of the time, but it’s also such a maddeningly modern blockbuster that it left me feeling older for having watched it. Aside from some really great stuntwork in a pair of showstopping (if incredibly similar) action set pieces, an interesting take on the film’s titular cowboy, and a good look overall, The Lone Ranger gets bogged down thanks to a useless 149 minute running time and a cavalier, ironic, and wholly unwelcome revisionist history that thinks it’s progressive but is dumb as desert dirt.
District Attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer) sets off for Texas to visit his big brother, hot shot lawman Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), who runs the show in a burgeoning hamlet soon to be connected to the rest of civilization thanks to the intestment of a wealthy railroader and silver baron (Tom Wilkinson) that’s really calling the shots. After a high profile outlaw escapes (William Fichtner), John is helpless to stop his brother from getting gunned down and he’s left for dead. Saved from being buzzard food by the native warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) and the intervention of a spirit horse that seems to think Reid will make a great, unkillable warrior, the uneasy friends realize they have a common enemy and set out to enact justice.
The biggest and most glaring problem with The Lone Ranger, and there are many despite moments that truly dazzle visually, is that agonizing running time that’s completely unwarranted for a story this threadbare. It’s admirable that Verbinski and trio of screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rosario, who both worked on the Verbinski created Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and Justin Haythe, who penned Snitch and Revolutionary Road) want to lend some depth to the titular masked man, but none of them have a clue how to pull that off.
The first thirty minutes or so are an exemplary set up. Hammer really sells the idea that the Lone Ranger was really kind of a bookish, John Locke idolizing nerd and not the hero everyone thinks he was. Watching him bumble through his training and coming to terms with being the last person standing is fun, but it’s a fun that very quickly wears off since the film shifts the focus to anyone and everyone but him. The story isn’t remotely complex in terms of plotting and character, but much of what transpires after the opening has no bearing on the enjoyment of the climax. I’m sure there’s a way to make an epic out of a character known primarily for starring in brief serials, but this surely isn’t the best way it could have been done.
The villains get stabs at depth but Fichtner and Wilkinson can’t do much of anything to salvage what they’re given. They’re forced to resort to mugging for the camera, and while they’re good at it, the film’s drive to try and deepen their relationship and desire to forward some sort of half baked theory about the nature of brotherhood is unconscionably dull. It makes it easy to retroactively realize that pretty much every character in the film is given more interesting stuff to do than the Ranger does (including the under utilized Dale), but none of it adds up to much of anything at all.
That is, of course, except for some of the worst female characters in recent memory. First, and probably most prominent, is Ruth Wilson as Rebecca Reid, who really serves no other purpose than to scream and cower in terror whenever anything bad is happening. The second is Helena Bonham Carter (making her first appearance alongside Johnny Depp in a non-Tim Burton film) as a prostitute with an ivory leg that just so happens to be a gun. The former would be better served by just being tied to a set of train tracks and left for dead. It would almost be less offensive. The latter – besides no longer being an original idea thanks to Robert Rodriguez – is literally only used as a ludicrously implausible Chekov’s Gun.
Then there’s the matter of Johnny Depp playing a Native American character; that big white, spirit elephant in the room. For what it’s worth, I can see where the film wants to head with the character by making Tonto the real brains behind the operation and having him use everyone’s racism to fly under the radar and often unnoticed, and Depp is convincing enough of an actor to convey that. That really doesn’t make it any more excusable because there’s definitely a sense of “look at how clever were being” post-irony to every frame of the film featuring Tonto. If the film were titled Tonto and The Lone Ranger, it would make slightly more sense, but still be racially insensitive. This same tack applies to a relatively minor slave character (and from what I can recall probably the only African American in the film) who exists only to be talked down to before helping out the heroes by doing one big thing for them, supposedly excusing everything that came before it. It’s almost the “not racist” version of the “no homo” phenomenon from a few years back and there’s no way to sugar coat it. You’ll either block it out or it will irk you incredibly.
Aside from Hammer, who really does get a chance at a star making performance despite the film undercutting him, the real paycheques here are earned by the real craftsman behind the project: the stunt people, the production designers, the graphics artists, the drivers, etc. Every cent of the film’s astronomical budget is up there on screen, and for everything that I’ve said negatively about Verbinski – who has proven incapable of making any film at a reasonable length save for possibly Rango – he certainly knows how to shoot action well and create tension within an action sequence. The lumbering locomotives and galloping horses are all something to truly behold and will likely leave the biggest impression on audiences after the credits roll.
Also, there’s a quite a bit of gustiness being shown by Disney in releasing this under their own brand. They did release the dark and somewhat twisted Pirates films, but Lone Ranger is on a whole other level of violence with people getting gunned down and innocent bystanders being put in harms way at an alarming rate. This is a point that could be seen as a negative to some, but it’s actually one of the more interesting elements to the film. Again, Verbinski proves through his use of violence that he can create vibrant scenes and moments, but he can’t sustain it.
Put bluntly, this film is an ungodly 45 minutes too long, making any other faults almost unforgivable because they are impossible to escape from quickly, and it’s an immense let down after an opening thirty minute that promise a sort of child like glee that disappears for almost a full two hours after that.. Much like The Place Beyond the Pines earlier this year (which was a full 9 minutes shorter than this, told 3 stories, and was actually trying to be a sprawling art house crime epic), one could take a nap during the entire middle section of the film, wake up for the climax, and the will have missed absolutely nothing of consequence. That’s kind of sad because although the film comes with a needless framing device of Johnny Depp in old man make-up and bookended with two train chases as the big action beats, there’s some stuff worth watching in here. Someone just needs to sit Mr. Verbinski down and say that enough is enough. Fellow writer Corey Atad tweeted that for his next film Verbinski should only be given $100 million and fired if he goes over budget. I would like to extend that to making sure the film runs under two hours, as well.