Verbinski, Depp Strike Out With "The Lone Ranger"

If 1999’s “Wild Wild West” was the deathblow for the big budget western, “The Lone Ranger” is the belated shower of dirt that should finally put the genre to rest. Once and for all, let us remember to forget the path that brought us here, a dusty, winding trail on which we passed the rotting corpses of “Jonah Hex” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” their memories pared down to ghost stories exchanged by spooked Hollywood executives passing in the night. Did Disney not get the memo? Did producer Jerry Bruckheimer think his name alone was enough to power through a legacy of failure? Whether by ignorance or hubris, “The Lone Ranger” is here, destined to please no one.

If “The Lone Ranger” does anything right, it’s in getting everything so wrong that it acts as a blueprint for what not to do with 200 million dollars. Based on the classic radio and TV serials, Gore Verbinki’s film begins with an exceptionally awkward framing device, limps along for the next 120 minutes, and then ends with a modestly rousing train-based action sequence, leaving the audience to wonder why they just spent 150 minutes with a cast and crew lacking any discernible affection for the source material. Purists will be unhappy, while newcomers either won’t care enough to see the film or won’t grasp why the characters were so beloved in the first place.

We begin with Johnny Depp – as Comanche warrior, Tonto – in remarkably ugly old-age make-up, recounting his life story to a young Lone Ranger fan. Tonto has ostensibly become part of a traveling circus exhibit, a living diorama outlining the history of “The Noble Savage,” but it’s poorly explained and has no connection to the rest of the picture. What follows is 45 minutes of bland exposition that, in the hands of a better creative team, would be refined to 10 minutes of actual screen time.

Armie Hammer co-stars as John Reid, uptight lawyer and brother to renowned cowboy, Dan Reid (James Badge Dale). When Dan and his gang are brutally murdered by outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), John is reluctantly rescued by Tonto and made into an immortal “spirit walker,” assuming the identity of the Lone Ranger, complete with badge and black mask. All of this takes far too long, turning the film’s first act into an extended prologue that does little more than set up an even less interesting second act.

Not only is the narrative perfunctory, but the spark that Depp brought to the role of Jack Sparrow in “Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl” (also directed by Gore Verbinksi) is nowhere to be found. Depp and the screenwriters (Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and Justin Haythe) fail each other over and over again, resulting in a painful cycle of misplaced expectations. Depp, not an inherently gifted comedic actor, is given heaps of unformed, undercooked jokes – both physical and verbal – with which to work, and he simply can’t make any of it happen. That Depp is clearly so trusting of his “Pirates” collaborators only exacerbates the problem.

Armie Hammer, who showed such poise in “The Social Network,” is even further out of his element, and the picture’s tonal discrepancies largely stem from his portrayal of the title character. Slipping in and out of a southern accent, Hammer is even more unsure of his character than the writers are, alternating between straight man and purveyor of slapstick to disorienting results. The one thing that the Lone Ranger has to be – heroic – Hammer misses by a country mile, but that the character is written so passively does the actor no favors. In fact, the Lone Ranger is little more than an observer in his own film. That sounds like a recipe for success, right?

The third act is a relative bright spot, particularly the aforementioned train sequence set to the ubiquitous “William Tell Overture.” And because of the serial nature of the source material, it’s a setpiece that works just fine on its own – as a kind of short film in itself, removed from the burden that is the rest of the picture. If you insist on seeing the film, check in at the two hour mark and take pleasure in knowing that you avoided clumsy musings on the Native American genocide (an important topic that’s entirely mucked up here), an unresolved subplot featuring a batch of mysterious vampire rabbits, and a scene that features Johnny Depp playing a Native American disguised as an Asian. Yeah, I have no idea, either.

Worst of all, the film’s biggest transgressions aren’t all that interesting. I was frequently bored with the experience as almost nothing on screen comes close to justifying the inflated budget. Some of the scenery is nice and intermittently the atmosphere approaches that of the “Pirates” series, but this kind of soulless, cynical filmmaking deserves to be rewarded with nothing less than your absence. Don’t bother with “The Lone Ranger.” It doesn’t deserve you.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 3, 2013
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriter: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Justin Haythe
Starring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material)