The past five years have been good to the western. With the likes of Quentin Tarantino and The Coen Brothers taking on the genre in grand fashion, and smaller films like “Meek’s Cutoff” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” holding the reins of the art-house western. Small wonder that Disney would be eager to take on the genre with their adaptation of the 1933 radio show character “The Lone Ranger” while there is still an audience for it. With mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer attached to elevate the film’s financial reach to the levels of epic choreographed action Disney is known for, “The Lone Ranger” has every opportunity to become a classic. But, thanks to a few problematic story issues, its future is not so secure.
In a classic “sounds good on paper” move, Disney has shifted the production team behind one of their most financially successful franchises – “Pirates of the Caribbean” – to the desert of the 1800’s to take on the heroic story of The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”) and his Native American sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp). The Lone Ranger, real name John Reid, is a clean-cut justice-by-trial lawman traveling via rail across the United States.
The railroad system, partly controlled by devious, two-faced tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), brings law, civility, and capitalism into the West to areas that don’t want it. Whether it’s cowboys or Indians, the United States government is stepping on toes with every mile of rail they lay down.
Also traveling on the train is Tonto, a Native American of surprising physical ability and questionable sanity who is being transported as a criminal along with outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). When the train is attacked, Cavendish escapes and John Reid and Tonto end up comically chained to each other – forced to escape together in a monumental opening sequence that sets a pulse-racing standard the film never again achieves.
Now having successfully escaped the train’s overtaking, John Reid arrests Tonto for whatever crimes he was being transported for in the first place. They continue on horseback along with Reid’s cowboy brother, Dan (James Badge Dale). When Butch Cavendish’s gang suddenly kills Dan, Reid and Tonto join together to avenge his death – each for their own reasons.
Director Gore Verbinski brings the same world-building expertise that flourished in the oceans and shores of his “Pirates” series to the American Southwest desert. Each new setting unveiled in “The Lone Ranger” is truly a delight to explore in the few moments we are allowed before the film moves on or destroys the set in gunfight. It’s a shame that despite the production design and set construction that went into fully realizing some of these amazing saloon-and-brothel type settings, the relentless pacing doesn’t allow them to breath or become established in any memorable way, and before long the rapid pace cycles through a few too many locations and it all becomes forgettable.
The film starts with a strong idea: a framed story in which Tonto, recreated as a wax figure in a carnival fair in 1933, comes to life to tell a single boy his story. The use of Tonto as an unreliable narrator is a brilliant attempt at capturing the escapism of the source, but with a bloated runtime spanning 150 minutes, anything non-essential or poorly executed becomes irritating.
As you may expect, the film really shines in the visual department. All the iconic imagery of the genre is present, from elaborate costuming, to buffalo roaming and train heists. These tropes are not only serviceably created, but at times are exceptional. Cinematography and CGI work together in respectable ways to create spectacle on-screen, and there are a number of little moments in which the camera works as a punch line, adding some really nice touches (Tonto hangs upside-down underneath a moving train car, cut to an upside-down shot of his perspective).
For a Disney film, a major concern arises in whether the genre will be crimped in favor of suiting a wide universal age range. Fortunately, “The Lone Ranger” is a firm PG-13 that allows characters to be killed, and some brutality to show up when necessary.
Along with the PG-13 rating, most things about “The Lone Ranger” ask to be taken seriously, from the fantastic cast to the overall tone. But, with the addition of a flavor of particularly dumb humor, the film ends up in identity crisis. Perhaps this is a facet of the source material that I’m not familiar with, but jaunts into lowbrow humor repeatedly removed me from the story, the setting, and any chance of connection with the film. It’s as if half of the film is written for an adult, the other half for a 12-year-old boy, and the two are crunched and glued together.
Every story, especially a boisterous action-adventure like this, needs humor. But, in a story that takes the time to bring up themes as worthwhile as the difference between the law of man and man-made law, a scene that depicts the unconscious Lone Ranger’s head being dragged through horse dung just doesn’t make sense to me.
In the end, I never did end up finding a rhythm with it. Too many scenes that don’t reach the height of the opening train robbery, all set to an overextended pace. The scope is simply too large without the quality material to back it up. See “The Lone Ranger” as a fan of the source material, or to take in an ensemble of exceptional cameo performances set to a hit-or-miss action exhibition, but don’t expect a thrill ride that doesn’t come with its own share of exhaustion.
U.S. Wide Release: July 3rd, 2013 | U.K. Wide Release: August 9th, 2013