Movie review: 'Lone Ranger' a little odd and flawed, but still fun

This publicity image released by Disney shows Johnny Depp as Tonto, left, and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger, in a scene from "The Lone Ranger." (AP Photo/Disney Enterprises, Inc., Peter Mountain)

“The Lone Ranger”


Walt Disney Pictures

2 hours, 29 minutes

The worst moment in “The Lone Ranger” comes toward the end of what had been a pretty terrific action piece, and is typical of the movie as a whole. Tonto and Lone Ranger to be, District Attorney John Reid, have just performed a daring escape from the prisoner car on a runaway train, all while shackled and tethered to each other by a heavy chain. After rescuing the passengers, the two are left alone atop the engine car, speeding toward oblivion. And then, as the train plows into the unfinished portion of the track, the engine tumbles and rolls, hurling our heroes through the air at a hundred miles per hour.

Plowing into the ground amid crashing debris, the two roll like rag dolls, coming to rest by piling into a stack of waiting equipment. They brush the dust out of their eyes only to witness the now wreck of an engine sliding straight for them. When the stress of the slide causes a massive iron spike to break free of the careening wreckage, the resulting projectile impales the earth just between Tonto and Reid, subsequently acting as a stop for the massive train engine on its way to crush the two puny humans in its path.

No spoiler alert here, as the scene has been the centerpiece for this big budget western’s ad campaign for the last few months. The filmmakers are obviously proud of the scene and, elaborately staged and impeccably filmed though it is, the sequence is profoundly silly, verging on dumb. What begins as typical action movie suspension of disbelief rapidly becomes a Wile E. Coyote adventure in an attempt to up the ante on adventure.

Director Gore Verbinski, the man who also brought us the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, is kind of like Michael Bay in his inability to rein in his own imagination, the difference being that Bay’s imagination has a kind of sweaty, queasy feel to it, where Verbinski’s comes off as a wide eyed, innocent love of elaborate fantasy set pieces. Unfortunately, this love works hard to undermine what could be a pretty good western.

Johnny Depp plays Tonto, the famous sidekick to the legendary masked lawman, in a role that is at turns funny, super cool, bizarre, and downright stupid, again acting as a mirror to the movie as a whole.

The film begins in 1933 when Tonto, as a very old man, is acting, for no reason ever explained, in a Wild West Show diorama. When an obviously disappointed young man wanders by the display, the Indian suddenly comes to life and, after a bit of silliness and through some terrible age makeup, begins to relate the true story of the Lone Ranger.

Jumping backward some 60 years, we are witness to the building of the Intercontinental Railroad and are introduced to our major players: railroad tycoon Latham Cole, played with greedy villainy by Tom Wilkinson, cannibalistic psychopath Butch Cavendish, almost unrecognizable as character actor William Fitchner, and finally John Reid, idealistic and newly appointed as the region’s district attorney, played by Armie Hammer, best known for playing twins in “The Social Network.”

As representative of the railroad, Cole is a power to be reckoned with out in the territories, while Reid is bringing the evil Cavendish to justice. Through a series of mishaps, the scene I described in the opening paragraph is soon to follow.

After multiple run-ins with Cavendish’s gang, Reid, having been deputized as a Texas Ranger by his brother, is shot and left for dead. He is then revived by Tonto and a white horse that may or may not be a representative of the spirit world. Tonto suggests that, by hiding his identity, our hero can easier run down his prey, a man the Indian believes is not a man at all, but rather an evil spirit call the Wendigo.

The film proceeds to employ at least a dozen more twists and turns, the plot growing thicker and murkier and more convoluted with each one. Many of the threads are followed through to the end, but just as often they are left hanging, frustratingly forgotten.

The film, though enjoyable for the most part, is rife with problems. At 2 1/2 hours, the movie is bloated and overlong, needing at least 30 minutes of fat cut. There are numerous scenes that are either simply dumb, or are completely incomprehensible, such as Tonto’s endless feeding of the dead bird on his head, a story element that seemed like it was important and that would be resolved, but never was with any success.

On the other hand, I did find the film to be very funny, charming, and with some great western action, the likes of which you just don’t see very often. Verbinski’s rumored $200 million budget is on full display, and even when the movie doesn’t make any sense, it still looks great. The problem is that the movie doesn’t seem to know what kind of a tone to strike. It’s funny, but not a comedy. It’s got a lot of gritty scenes, enough to suggest that Verbinski was attempting to make a slightly more realistic version of this typically broad, comic booky tale. And then at other times, the action is so overblown that you feel he’s going the other way, making a cartoon of a movie. The film just feels confused.

By way of example, the screen writers seem to be confusing the Comanche, a proud, but fairly vicious tribe that lived in Texas, with the Cherokee or one of the relatively more peaceful tribes of the Midwest. This is not to suggest the Comanche weren’t wronged just as all the Native American tribes were originally wronged, but the portrayal of them in this film, as reticent to fight and innocent of raiding the settlements, doesn’t really jibe with recorded history. I’m pretty sure this movie is also confusing Texas with Utah, or possibly Arizona, as the scenery doesn’t look anything like parts of the Lone Star state I’ve been in.

Some of these problems are minor, some not so, as when the rousing theme of the Lone Ranger, “The William Tell Overture,” fires up near the end of the film and feels completely, almost laughably out of place, especially considering it goes on for what seems like 15 minutes.

Overall, however, Verbinski’s got enough good stuff to recommend the film as a fun summer blockbuster kind of experience, and a rare one in that it’s a western. What this film needs is a director’s cut (or maybe a forced studio cut) that trims away all the excess weirdness and nonsense, such as the scene when Tonto puts a birdcage on his head for no apparent reason, and leaves only the good stuff, the rousing story of a masked man on a white horse and his Indian companion, meting out western justice and riding off into the sunset.

Grade: B-

“The Lone Ranger” is rated PG-13 for scenes of western violence, some of it gruesome, and for mild language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.