Monday, August 12, 2013

The Lone Ranger


Grade: 57/B-

Few tentpole films this summer have been as lambasted as The Lone Ranger, and yet few are as filled with moments of inspiration. The film has been scrutinized since it was first announced for its troubled production (including pre-production shutdown and the death of a crew member), extravagant budget ($225 million) and attempt to revive a character that went out of fashion in the 1960s. And truthfully, The Lone Ranger is a highly problematic film, overlong, overstuffed, and often misguided. But it’s also an inventive blockbuster in a season filled with much safer and less memorable studio fare.

1869, Texas: lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) arrives home on the Transcontinental Railroad and joins his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), on the manhunt for the brutal outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). John is left for dead after Cavendish kills Dan and most of the other rangers, but he is found by Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Comanche who comes to believe John is a spirit walker who cannot be killed in battle. Reluctantly, the two team up against Cavendish, whom Tonto has his own grudge against, and Lantham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a railroad tycoon who uses Cavendish to fake Comanche attacks on settlers, thereby starting a war against the Comanche so he can run the railroad through their territory.

That’s just the start of a plot that also involves Dan’s widow/John’s love interest Rebecca (an underused Ruth Wilson) and her son, a corrupt Cavalry officer (Barry Pepper), and a brothel madam (Helena Bonham Carter) with an ivory leg that hides a gun. The film also contains a framing device in which an elderly Tonto (borrowing Dustin Hoffman’s elderly make-up in the framing device of Little Big Man) is part of a wild-west sideshow, where he recounts his adventures to a young boy who idolizes the Lone Ranger. It’s all a bit much, pushing the film just under the 150-minute mark and overcomplicating what’s essentially an origin story.

Narrative economy has never been director Gore Verbinski’s strong suit, though this film is at least less convoluted and confusing than his latter two Pirates of the Caribbean movies. More problematic is his tendency to mix the grotesque or grim with lighthearted material: this film contains a heart-eating villain, comic buffoonery, and the genocide of Native American people, often within minutes of each other. This is a tonally schizophrenic movie, and many of the turns are wildly misguided. A scene near the climax jumps uncomfortably back and forth between the deaths of Comanche and Tonto’s comic rescue of the Ranger. Taken apart, both elements are actually quite effective. Cross-cut, they’re a mess.

The film does have noble intentions, mixing a blockbuster format with a revisionist western outlook. Here, the Natives are heroic martyrs, the progress-oriented industrialists villains, all under the name of a hero that often held up white patriarchy. But this too is problematic, as we don’t get to know many of the Comanche other than Tonto, always a problematic character. The film does attempt to subvert the character’s racist origins, making him the smarter of the two heroes and making him an outcast among his people (in one of the movie’s many throwbacks to Depp’s earlier western Dead Man). The sometimes awkward framing device, too, serves a purpose, showing a heroic man who’s literally been turned into a sideshow in a canny bit of meta-commentary. But Tonto is still our representative for Native Americans in the film, and he still speaks in the pidgin English that made the character so offensive years ago.

Depp’s performance is also a mixed bag- Tonto does have some of the film’s funnier moments, and Depp’s comic timing and stone-faced reaction shots are often effective. And yet there are still traces of latter-day Depp trickling in here and there, with this serving as a quieter but still problematic version of Depp’s oddball characters that are more manner than human.

And yet, in spite of all my complaints, I rather liked The Lone Ranger. It has a saggy middle section and isn’t always successful at achieving its more humane ambitions, but it has a strong center in Hammer’s immensely likable, self-deprecating performance. The film also gives Verbinski a chance to pay tribute (more successfully than in the too self-satisfied Rango) to a number of great westerns, from Once Upon a Time in the West to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and to string together some of his most ingenious set-pieces. The final train-chase in particular that rivals Robert Zemeckis and Buster Keaton (another reference point for Verbinski) for sheer exuberance and comic timing. The Lone Ranger is a mess of a movie, ambitious but bloated and misshapen, but few messes in recent memory have been this much fun.

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