The Lone Ranger—Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, James Badge Dale, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Barry Pepper, Steven Root (2013; Dir: Gore Verbinski)
The Lone Ranger has not done well in the movies. First, he showed up in inexpensive serials. Then, after a good career in radio and television, he was caught up in the nostalgia for television in the movie studios, resulting in The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), featuring the immortal Klinton Spilsbury in his only movie role. Now, in 2013, the Ranger was again brought to the big screen, this time by director Gore Verbinski, and no expense was spared, with big stars (Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer), a big budget, lots of action and many expensive CGI effects.
The film does not feature a story so much as various vignettes and action pieces strung together for a lengthy 149 minutes. It opens with an unnecessary framing story from San Francisco in 1933. A small boy dressed as the Lone Ranger (complete with mask) steps into a Wild West tent at a carnival (the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island wasn’t until 1939, but that’s the sort of event it seems to be), where a tableau showing an aged Indian comes alive. It is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who proceeds to regale the lad with the story of his adventures with the Lone Ranger.
Tonto and Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) are chained in a railroad freight car heading for Colby, Texas, in 1869 as the transcontinental railroad nears completion. Some one has put a gun in the floorboards so Cavendish can escape when his gang robs the train. John Reid (Armie Hammer), newly graduated from law school in the east and now appointed the Colby County prosecutor, ineffectively tries to stop the escape and robbery, but only ends up chained to Tonto himself. The Cavendish gang has killed the engineers and set the locomotive to increase speed as it heads toward the end of the track.
Texas Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) rides up with his five men and succeeds in disconnecting the locomotive from the passenger cars, but Tonto and John manage to survive flying off the train at full speed as the train crashes. John puts Tonto in jail (accused of being an Indian, apparently) and renews an acquaintance with Dan’s wife Rebecca (English actress Ruth Wilson), and she appears to have a thing for him.
Dan and John and the other rangers head off after Butch Cavendish and are led into an ambush by the drunken Collins, who has known them both since childhood. All are apparently killed and Cavendish eats Dan’s heart. Tonto comes upon the scene and buries the Rangers, only to discover that John is not dead. John is chosen by a white spirit horse to come back to life, against Tonto’s advice that the other brother would do better. Indeed, he explains a bit later to John that “Kemo Sabe” means “wrong brother,” kind of a running joke. John dons a mask made from Dan’s vest, with bullet holes where he was shot forming the eye holes.
The two go to Red’s (a combination bar and wild whorehouse) in search of information on Cavendish or Collins, in a picaresque but unnecessary sequence. Red (Helena Bonham Carter), a former dancer with an ivory artificial leg, seems inclined to help but gives no real information. They make their escape and hear that Comanches are raiding ranches and farms, and they head for Dan Reid’s place. The Comanches are actually Cavendish’s gang dressed as Indians (sort of); John kills the remaining two while supposedly firing a warning shot, and they follow one outlaw’s horse into the desert, where the horse keels over dead.
They are found by Comanches led by Big Bear (Saginaw Grant), and John tells what he knows of Cavendish and his plans. But Tonto has no credibility among his own people, since he showed two white men where to find silver (“where the river begins”) twenty or thirty years ago, leading to the killing of most of his band. The Comanches leave John and Tonto buried up to their heads, and the cavalry races over the top of them without bothering to stop. The spirit horse pulls John out, and he in turn gets Tonto out to show him where the river begins. There are a number of railroad cars laden with silver, and John and Tonto find Cavendish there.
John is taken and about to be executed by a military firing squad, when a train comes between him and his executioners in one of the split-second maneuvers typical of this movie. The cavalry, led by a long-haired Custer-like captain (Barry Pepper) slaughters the Comanches when they attack. John and Tonto attempt to blow up a high railroad trestle, for no obvious reason.
Meanwhile, evil railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) has kidnapped Rebecca and Danny, intending them to be his new family. In the movie’s most egregious geographical misplacement, the transcontinental railroad is joined at Promontory Summit—in Texas, not Utah. As part of the festivities, Cole is taking over control of the railroad; he and Cavendish are partners, and have been ever since the child Tonto led them to the silver decades ago. A chase of two trains follows, with the Lone Ranger riding the spirit horse along the top of one of them, diving to a flat car just as a tunnel comes up. Both trains wreck, Butch Cavendish and the long-haired captain are killed, and Cole rides the silver cars over the blown-up trestle to his doom. The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride off to right other wrongs, instead of John Reid settling down with his brother’s family.
If this summary sounds like kind of a hash, the movie’s plot is. Johnny Depp’s performance is strongly reminiscent of his shtick as Captain Jack Sparrow in the four (so far) Pirates of the Caribbean movies, not coincidentally also directed by Gore Verbinski. Depp’s makeup is obviously based on a famous painting by western artist James Bama. John Reid, the Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer), is played as a doofus; by the end of the movie, he is simply a more experienced doofus. Things seem to be set up for perhaps a sequel, but the movie was not a big hit. In fact, by some accounts it forced Disney to take a $190 million write-down on its books.
Some performances stand out enough to recognize that a couple of good actors were wasted in what they were given to do here. James Badge Dale is good as the Ranger brother Dan Reid, and his character is killed off early. Ruth Wilson, so good as Jane Eyre in the much more coherent BBC production (2006), is here whipsawed back and forth without any consistent motivation. The supposed John Reid-Rebecca Reid infatuation doesn’t work. William Fichtner, who can be effective with more restraint and less makeup, is too over-the-top filthy and evil as the wendigo (kind of an Indian vampire creature) Butch Cavendish. Tom Wilkinson can play this clichéd corrupt railroad baron in his sleep, and does.
This could be much longer if we went into the various geographic and historical anomalies and anachronisms in which this film abounds. There is lots of borrowing from other westerns, such as the cross-dressing outlaw in the Cavendish gang (see Dead Man for the first such example of that), the use of a cannibalistic wendigo (see Ravenous) and the long-haired blond bad-guy cavalry leader (see The Mask of Zorro). Overall, it’s not quite as bad as either The Wild, Wild West or the Klinton Spilsbury version of the Lone Ranger story from thirty years ago, but it’s not very good.
Was anything good? There is excellent cinematography (see the overhead shots of the Rangers heading up a creek into the canyon) and some of the best use of Monument Valley since John Ford started using it as a setting, including for both Texas (The Searchers) and Tombstone, Arizona (My Darling Clementine). As a comedy, it doesn’t work terribly well, largely because of insonsistencies in tone and characterization, as well as lack of a story. The stuntwork/CGI effects are over-the-top unbelievable from the start. This film now holds the record for train crashes in a western with three, breaking the old record of two formerly held by Cecil B. DeMille for Union Pacific (1939). You can do that more easily now that you can crash them on computers and not actually have to smash up equipment.
Director Gore Verbinski actually made one other western, and it’s better than this one: the animated feature Rango (2011). Johnny Depp is not a natural in westerns, but he too has made another one: Jim Jarmusch’s surrealistic Dead Man (1995). For a better fanciful western, see Cowboys & Aliens (2011).