“Never take off the mask.”
The Lone Ranger is not nearly as bad as it’s box-office-bomb reputation would have you believe. At the time of its release it was criticized for its jumbled script, messy plot, extreme running time and excessive violence. But there were a few critics (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-lone-ranger-2013) who saw past the bloated budget and (possibly) racist casting decisions and argue the film is actually pretty great and will be reassessed in time. Looking back on it a few years later, with the embarrassing monetary loss fast becoming a distant memory, I agree with these critics.
The film wastes no time introducing us to the star of the show; The Old West. Like the seven seas in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the setting feels like a lived-in, heighted version of reality. Everything in the film is dusty and looks tired, and really reflects the feel of the period. We first meet our hero as he’s travelling in by train on the new railway. John Reid is a lawman, but not the tough, gritty version you’d expect. He’s a lawyer and a bit of dweeb. He certainly looks the part, square jawed and standing at 6’ 5” he was born to play an old fashioned hero. Whatever you think of the film, Armie Hammer is great and likable. Also on the train is our second protagonist, Johnny Depp’s Tonto. The film might be called The Lone Ranger but it’s very much a two man show, which is good because the film works best when our heroes are together. Tonto isn’t just the sidekick in this new take on the story, he’s a fully fleshed out character with agency, trying to make up for some pretty gruesome sins in his past. The fish-out-of-water thing they both have, as they try and understand the ways of the other, is strong and the chemistry is definitely there.
On the train in the opening scene we also meet one of the stranger character’s in the movie, William Fichtner’s villainous Butch Cavendish. Here is a man who kills indiscriminately and then eats the flesh of his victims. We even see him eat the heart of one character (albeit in classy reflection in another character’s eye). A lot of people at the time were saying this crosses a line for a PG-13 movie, but that was all over-exaggerated. It’s gruesome but not worse than anything from the Pirates movies. Also Butch’s gang murders a whole lot of people but that all comes part and parcel with the Western genre. Cavendish is a cartoony villain, with Fichtner expertly chewing the scenery. The violence of the movie doesn’t always work with the other elements however. You can’t have a man get his heart eaten and follow it up with a poop joke, just as you can’t have an entire tribe get wiped out and then have a silly horse up a tree.
The plot is, at first glance, at complete mess. Tonto wants to kill Cavendish because he is a Wendigo, and he’s throwing nature out of balance. John Reid is a spiritwalker, stuck between this world and the next. Throw in Helena Bonham-Carter’s brothel madam with an ivory leg and a ruthless railway tycoon and you’ve got a pretty crazy plot. But in a great twist halfway through, it’s revealed that Tonto made up the magic stuff to cope with his guilt. In reality there are no Wendigo’s or spiritwalkers, it all comes down to money, silver and greed. In reality it’s a story about revenge and frontier justice, and once you have that in mind the movie is a lot more enjoyable. It’s hardly a surprise by now, but the score by Hans Zimmer is excellent also and complements the tone of the film. It’s a shame that it won’t go down as one of his more popular soundtracks.
One of my biggest complaints of the film is the structure. The film has bookends as part of its narrative and they’re not brilliant. It sees an old Tonto regaling a young boy about the adventures of The Lone Ranger. It does lead to some pretty funny flashback humour (with the boy questioning implausible moments in the story) but for the most part it just gives Johnny Depp opportunity to play up his wacky Old Man Tonto character, wearing about half the budget in make-up. I think the Tonto that makes up the majority of the film is actually a good character with a restrained, weighty performance from Depp. This old Tonto feels more like a parody of everything people are tired of with modern-day Johnny Depp. Admittedly the scenes are used well within the film, with the boy acting as a moral compass when something atrocious happens (“They killed ALL the Indians?”) but often they feel like they’re detracting from The Lone Ranger of the film’s title. It reminds me of The Green Mile, a film which would be vastly improved by removing the bookends. In a film like this which was already drawing complaints for its runtime, maybe some more time in the cutting room wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
The very best thing about this film is the action. The film has a train crash that would normally be a climax of any other film, in the first half an hour. They set the bar high from the word “go” and the rest of the film does not disappoint. People are shot in a flurry of sparks and smoke, and it feels amazing to watch. It’s like the sword fights of the Pirates franchise, expertly made and choreographed. Verbinski is a master of action and he shows that best of all in the final set-piece. It is spectacular and will go down as one of my favourite action scenes in history. It involves two trains going down two separate tracks, with character fighting on each, across each, jumping on and off the train, swinging around and riding a horse along it. There is one particularly jaw-dropping moment as the trains run parallel with a ravine between them, with The Lone Ranger riding his horse through one of them, firing his guns across to an enemy on the other one. It’s like the ending of At World’s End but instead of ships it’s two steam trains. Verbinski achieves the same effect here as he did in those films, absolute control over the action on screen. For every moment of action you know where each character is in relation to the others, and not for a second are you confused. It’s masterful and makes the film worth a watch just for this moment.
It’s far from perfect, but it’s also about a thousand times better than you’ve probably heard it is. Hammer and Depp are very likable leads and the supporting cast is strong. The plotting can be a bit awkward and the bookends don’t always work, but the action is some of the best big budget action I’ve seen. It has issues but once the William Tell Overture kicks in you’ll forget all of it.
Reviewed by Jack