I don’t know the exact date but after the release of Black Hawk Down uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer seemed to lose his mojo. The man behind such hits as Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Rock, the type of films that oozed machismo despite starring the likes of an actor who previously engaged in risky business, a comedian that became a breakout star in less than 48 hours, and an actor who has one of the more elaborate filmographies to say the least.
Then something happened; Bruckheimer became obsessed with franchises, both on the large and small screen. Police procedurals like Crime Scene Investigation (insert city name here) began to proliferate the CBS network. In cinema, he served up a pair of Bad Boys movies and National Treasures. But the crowning jewel was his repopularizing pirates and swashbuckling action in the Pirates of the Caribbean, an ultra-successful franchise that seems to be growing in terms of overall earnings just not overall enjoyment.
Knowing all this Bruckheimer tries to reinvent the western by turning back the TV dial to The Lone Ranger. Yes, that lone ranger. More of a revisionist tale than a complete reinvention, the characters and themes depicted in the Old West seem more apropos with today’s landscape of corrupt politicians and greed. Oh, and we have a hero that begins his journey as a district attorney that’s anti-gun before becoming a masked vigilante with a pair of six-shooters that seemingly have an endless supply of bullets, save for when he’s directly opposite a baddie and the barrel clicks empty. Aw shucks.
Touted as being from the team that brought you the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, director Gore Verbinski returns to the Bruckheimer fold along with star Johnny Depp. Verbinski is a very good filmmaker when it comes to the big stuff – like crafting remarkable action sequences – but needs to refine the small stuff – the intimate moments where there’s a break in the action. As much as I have grown tired of the overstuffed Pirates sequels, the demise of Captain Beckett in PotC: At World’s End is very operatic in tone and final denouement. And his last film, Rango, is an animated gem that I commonly refer to as “The best Tim Burton film Tim Burton never directed.” In that film, Verbinski showed a flair for the western albeit with a Chinatown motif that went way beyond the heads of the kids watching.
Sadly, the strange oddness that made Rango so memorable seems to have missed the train bound for West Texas (which looks surprisingly like Utah and New Mexico) in The Lone Ranger. Johnny Depp doesn’t play the masked vigilante, but he gets top star billing as the ranger’s sidekick, Tonto. At one time it looked like Depp could do no wrong, but then after the success of playing Capt. Jack Sparrow he seems to have morphed into Al Pacino circa Scent of a Woman, where he’s playing a version of that character to a degree. With Depp, while he’s strayed occasionally with films like Finding Neverland, he’s mostly been Tim Burton’s ingénue with their indulgences in trying to make people care about TV relics like Dark Shadows or make people forget that Gene Wilder was the better Willy Wonka.
Surprisingly, Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto is one of his better efforts of recent memory, though he still has a tell, a nervous tic that is sure to drive you bonkers. Sure, he’s still playing a caricature, but the film’s problems doesn’t rely with him. It relies on tone and execution. Coincidentally enough, a few days prior to its release I saw a film entitled The Clearing, starring Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe. The film was Justin Haythe’s first credited screenplay credit. In between that release and The Lone Ranger he had two other screen credits, an adaptation of Revolutionary Road and Snitch starring Dwayne Johnson (released earlier this year). All four have varying degrees of tonal inconsistencies with Road being the best considering the overall subject matter. Also helping with the scripting duties is the duo responsible for the PotC movies, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. And here begins the descent into madness. Seriously, there are so many bad ideas laid out on screen that it’s amazing an experienced editor or Bruckheimer didn’t step in to excise a goodly portion.
With a running time of 149 minutes – know this, longer doesn’t always equate with a film being better – a good 45 minutes could have been cut out and you wouldn’t have missed it. You also have to wonder how strong a character is The Lone Ranger to warrant such a long-running film to go along with its enormous budget (at least $200 million). Blame it on the popularization of comic book movies and Bruckheimer wanting in on that action. But The Lone Ranger is more in the realm of The Shadow and The Phantom, radio heroes of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger made it to television but is considered a fixture of the bygone era of pop culture. In the cinematic version, we get the Cowboys and Indians angle to appease the little tykes who may have outgrown their dinosaur phase. As we saw a few years ago with Cowboys & Aliens, a film property based on a comic, genre-smashing doesn’t always work. A character like The Lone Ranger isn’t the like to warrant a big elaborate production – which at one time was to have included werewolves, but got nixed when the budget became too big that the hairy beasts had to be euthanized with a pencil or keystroke, not silver bullets.
Beginning with a poor framing device by which the story unspools from an elder Tonto telling the legend of The Lone Ranger to a young boy at a Wild West Show in late 1930s San Francisco, we have to suffer the visual indignity of Johnny Depp looking like Keith Richards. The framing device, while making me reminiscence about Columbo reading The Princess Bride to Kevin Arnold, has no payoff. Watching the end credits prove this much (hint: there’s no reason to sit through them all, unless you are directly related to Best Boy or something).
The rest of the picture is full of busy-work aka stuff to make you look at your watch. Yearning and tortured silence of our hero John Reid (Armie Hammer) seeing his once sweetheart Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) married to his Texas Ranger brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), plants the seeds of what everyone in the audience (yes, even young seven-year-old Sally who could care less) already knows will occur.
The always-reliable William Fitchner plays Cavendish, a wanted outlaw who is able to escape his captors as if he were Houdini. He also has a penchant for human hearts. Got to get that protein in one way or another. Upon killing John and Dan in an ambush, the origin story of The Lone Ranger finally commences. Tonto has his own reasons for hunting Cavendish as well. Sadly, these details are revealed ever so slowly over the next two hours.
Outside of the early train derailment in which our two heroes narrowly escape with their lives, we are treated to poor story development and humor that just makes you shake your head wondering What were they thinking when they had Silver drinking a beer, and in a Disney release no less?
The saving grace, if there is one to The Lone Ranger, is when the famed “William Tell Overture” finally kicks in signaling the last major action sequence of the motion picture. This is where Gore Verbinski shows his moxie as an action director, crafting an elaborate 20 minutes of inventive and hilarious action. If only the entire film could have matched this in terms of tone and execution, then it could have been paired alongside The Mask of Zorro, which struck the right balance of humor and action. To see that film and now this and later realize that Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wrote both you can only assume that they have lost their creative zeal after working on four Pirates of the Caribbean movies and are just applying the same formula of adventures on the high seas to the Old West. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not just about changing locations.
The fact that Tonto needs to have the last word, even scolding The Lone Ranger as he yells “Hi-yo, Silver…away!” as they ride into the sunset, you sort of share in the uneasiness the filmmakers had on the project and at how ashamed they are that The Lone Ranger can’t be as dark and brooding as say Batman. Why Bruckheimer decided this was the best approach, I don’t know. Whether or not this turns out to be a financial turkey like John Carter (probably not overseas with Johnny Depp star presence), just know that it’s okay to have summer popcorn movies with uncomplicated heroes. Do yourself a favor and revisit The Mask of Zorro again. It’s just as long as The Lone Ranger, but you’ll have much more fun. Trust me.
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writer: Justin Haythe and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio
Notable Cast: Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner