When they last attempted a big-screen version of the story of John Reid—better known as the Lone Ranger—back in 1981, the result was one of the biggest, most expensive bombs of its day. “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” was no “Heaven’s Gate”-level disaster, but it was a terrible movie that ended the incipient acting career of Klinton Spilsbury, who played the lead (and whose voiced was dubbed, badly), and the directorial one of cinematographer William A. Fraker. Since then the only major effort to revive the character came in a busted 2003 WB pilot for a possible series, which starred Chad Michael Murray of “One Tree Hill” fame. It was awful, too.
Now Disney has bankrolled producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski in their new take on the Masked Man, which reportedly cost $250 million to make (exclusive of marketing costs, which could raise the total outlay to $400 million). That’s a huge investment for such an iffy property, the fate of screen westerns nowadays being so underwhelming. Still, the duo confounded expectations with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, an unlikely proposition, inspired by an amusement park ride, that resulted in mega-success at the global boxoffice and one film—the first (“The Curse of the Black Pearl”)—that was actually pretty amusing (the others going from bad to worst). And once again they’re joined by Johnny Depp, here as Tonto, the faithful Indian sidekick to the Ranger (Armie Hammer), whose puckish performance as the goofy Jack Sparrow made all the difference in the “Pirates” pictures and who teamed with Verbinski to magical effect in the animated “Rango” as well.
So despite the specter of failure in the character’s recent past, one still had hopes for this revisionist revival. Alas, they’re not realized. “The Lone Ranger” is “The Wild, Wild West” of 2013, a visually extravagant but tonally chaotic behemoth that never finds the right balance between slam-bang action, goofy comedy and solemn historical critique. By trying to do it all, the movie manages to accomplish remarkably little.
The screenplay presents the traditional origin story of lawyer John Reid, who’s the only survivor of the ambush in which his brother Dan (stalwart James Badge Dale) and his fellow Texas Rangers are massacred by the evil Butch Cavendish (one-note William Fichtner). But in telling the story the movie veers from one extreme to the other, on the one hand portraying Reid as an amiable doofus until the last reel (a problem, since handsome Hammer goes overboard in the comic-bozo department) and on the other depicting Cavendish as a vicious brute who kills people offhandedly and goes so far as to devour Dan’s heart—literally—as the lawman dies. (For family entertainment, there’s a surprising amount of nasty violence in the picture—including a horde of ravenous jackrabbits that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie.)
The script also dwells excessively on Dan’s wife (and eventual widow) Rebecca (colorless Ruth Wilson), who was once John’s love, and on her little son Danny (bland Bryant Price). But they’re given little substance, instead being treated like little more than props (damsel in distress, imperiled tyke) as Reid tries to rescue them from the villains (not just Cavendish but railroad man Latham Cole, played gruffly by Tom Wilkinson, whose interest in the woman quickly assumes a creepy aspect).
But Reid’s transformation from hapless boob to legendary hero is only half—and in many respects, the lesser half—of the narrative, because the film is also an origin story for Tonto, presented as a guilt-ridden outcast who’s been searching for more than two decades for the evil person who slaughtered his village when he was a boy—and who blames himself for the tragedy. And yet despite this horrendous background, he’s also portrayed as a quirky oddball whom Depp tries desperately to invest with a similar sort of lovable weirdness as that he brought to Jack Sparrow. He’s an enormously gifted actor, and some of the character’s remarks, and many of his reaction shots, are bound to get a laugh, particularly as Tonto has been transformed into a magically-empowered Yoda-like figure who takes it upon himself reluctantly to instruct Reid in his new role as the spirit-walking Lone Ranger. Depp also serves as the effective narrator of the movie, encased in makeup that appears to have been left over from “Little Big Man” as Tonto tells a young boy (stiff Mason Cook) enamored of the Masked Man his story at a 1933 carnival where he’s an exhibit in a Wild West show. But again the juxtaposition of this peculiar character with a subplot about the white man’s determination to exterminate the Indians in the name of “progress”—represented by Cole’s transcontinental railroad and the connivance in it of both Cavendish and the US cavalry (symbolized by Barry Pepper’s Major Fuller, who’s obviously patterned after General Custer)—is jarring in a film that, unlike Arthur Penn’s, is presented as a mindless hoot, especially when toward the close another massacre occurs.
It would have been hard for Verbinski to calibrate these elements alone into a tonally coherent whole, but others are added, like a totally extraneous subplot involving saloonkeeper Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter), who dresses in garb that might have been borrowed from her latest Tim Burton outing and is equipped with an ivory leg that men swoon over but conceals a shotgun within. Or Cavendish’s henchmen, one of whom seems to delight in wearing women’s clothes. Or all the cartoonish bits involving the wonder horse Trigger. The touch that served the director so well in “Black Pearl” and “Rango” eludes him here as much as it did in the “Pirates” sequels; one moment of the picture lurches uneasily into the next, as camp turns to somberness or absurdity to violence.
And then, as if to prove its Bruckheimer credentials, the movie careens into a huge, half-hour action blitz at the close, an exhausting train chase (staged against Hans Zimmer’s uninspired recycling of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”) that alternates between brutal gun/fist battles and episodes of slapstick choreography apparently inspired by old Buster Keaton silents, and ending with the explosive destruction of a bridge that looks several times the height of the Eiffel Tower. (Actually “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” pulled that off better.) The sequence also repeatedly uses a hackneyed old saw that the picture’s employed earlier—the one where somebody’s pointing a gun at somebody else, but just before he fires is picked off by another person from out of frame. Enough, already.
And that injunction is appropriate to the entire movie, which lumbers along for a full two-and-a-half hours before ending with a credits sequence that’s apparently intended to recall Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp ambling off into the distance but, without any payoff, goes nowhere. A tip of the hat is due to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who manages some shots of Monument Valley as striking as anything since John Ford. But otherwise “The Lone Ranger” wastes a lot of acting talent—and a whole pile of money and behind-the-scenes talent—in an attempt to start a franchise that seems as doomed as “John Carter” was. “The Curse of the Black Pearl” is replaced by “The Curse of the Black Mask.”