With his adaptation of The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski reboots a story no one really asked for, but he manages to accomplish his task with panache. Verbinski—one of the most pop culture literate directors currently working in Hollywood—appears to suffer from attention deficit disorder in the best possible sense. Never content to simply play in one genre, the filmmaker consistently attempts to cram as many influences into one film as he possibly can. It’s as if he believes this is the last movie he will ever make, and therefore, he intends to use this production to film all of the movies he’s ever wanted to make…all at once. The result is a delightfully demented Western that’s equal parts Spaghetti Western, horror movie, and slapstick comedy.
When Verbinski fails, we get tripe like the ill-conceived, bloated Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. When he succeeds, we receive gems like Rango and the first Pirates of the Caribbean. While The Lone Ranger is pretty far from being Verbinski’s best film, it’s closer to Rango than Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
Told through the unnecessary framing device of an elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp) recounting his adventures to a young boy in 1933 San Francisco, the story begins with a train hijacking. We’re introduced to a young, untested John Reid (Armie Hammer) who, following a stint on the East coast, is returning to his home out West as a federal prosecutor. As played by Hammer, he’s idiosyncratic and almost effeminate. When asked by a church-going woman if he would care to pray with her, he holds up a copy of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and proudly proclaims, “This is my Bible, ma’am.”
Meanwhile, the younger Tonto first appears enchained in the train’s jail car next to a cannibal by the name of Butch Cavendish (an impossibly evil William Fichtner). A gang of degenerates assault the train before it can reach its final destination in an adrenaline-packed action sequence reminiscent of the elaborate swashbuckling stunt work showcased in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Reid and Tonto spring into action and attempt to thwart Butch’s escape, but thanks to Reid’s refusal to use a gun, the villains escape and the train derails.
Reid joins up with his brother Dan (played by the increasingly omnipresent James Dale Badge) and his posse to capture Butch, but the group is ambushed and gunned down. In a sequence considerably more gruesome than anything capture in Sergio Leone’s R-rated Spaghetti Westerns, Butch cuts Dan’s heart out of his chest and eats it in front of his brother; a R-rating was averted by showing the act murkily reflected in Reid’s pupil. The outlaws leave the remains of the posse behind, and Tonto, assisted by a mystical white horse, brings Reid back from the dead.
Reid dons the mask of the Lone Ranger, and the two set out to bring the murderers to justice. As they quest onward, the duo encounters all the trappings of the genre. There’s the prostitute with the heart of gold (played here by a one-legged Helena Bonham Carter), there’s the evil railroad magnate (Tom Wilkinson), and the widowed damsel in distress (Ruth Wilson). Meanwhile, Reid and Tonto traverse scenery made iconic by the likes of John Ford—extended sequences take place in Monument Valley, Utah, the location where classics such as Stagecoach and The Searchers were shot.
However, this is a Gore Verbinski film, and never content to mine one genre for inspiration, the film contains a hodgepodge of references including a climactic battle, taking place on two parallel speeding trains, that references brilliance of the Rube Goldberg-like comedic stunt work featured in Buster Keaton’s The General. The Lone Ranger’s dark comedic streak coupled with gruesome killings and an unusual dose of Native American mysticism makes certain that this film will never be confused with a traditional Western.
The Lone Ranger isn’t perfect, and it suffers from some serious flaws. Like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels that came before it, this film is overlong and bloated. The movie follows tangents that lead nowhere and offer no reward. There are subplots and supporting characters that could have been trimmed from the finished product without hurting the quality of the film at all. And Johnny Depp’s decision to play Tonto as a complete eccentric puts the tone of the film in an uncomfortable place bordering on extremely politically incorrect.
Still, I found myself loving The Lone Ranger. It’s bent and deranged, and definitely not appropriate for general audiences; but it’s also bold and brimming with wild ideas. And that’s not something we often see in summer blockbusters now. Here’s a movie where a dandified lawman teams up with a deranged Indian and a one-legged prostitute to take down a cannibal outlaw and a cutthroat industrialist. Safe this is not; Man of Steel this is not. I enjoyed The Lone Ranger, warts and all, and while I find myself in the minority now, I believe future generations of movie-goers will revisit this flick and find it to be entirely misunderstood.