Tag Archives: Television Nostalgia

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 13, 2014

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.


William Fichtner in heavy makeup as the wendigo Butch Cavendish.

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.


Experienced Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) offers his brother John (Armie Hammer) a gun.

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.


Tonto (Johnny Depp) consults the spirit horse, while a disheveled John Reid (Armie Hammer) looks on.

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.


The last Ranger heads into action.

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).

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The Legend of Zorro (2005)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 8, 2014

The Legend of Zorro—Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rufus Sewell, Nick Chinlund, Adrian Alonso, Shuler Hensley, Michael Emerson, Julio Oscar Mechoso (2005; Dir: Martin Campbell)


The 1998 recasting of the Zorro story (Two Zorros! The passing of the mask and sword!) in The Mask of Zorro was a hit with audiences, so a sequel was inevitable.  Anthony Hopkins’ Diego de la Vega died at the end of Mask, so he doesn’t return for the sequel.  But the attractive Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas return as Diego’s daughter and the replacement Zorro Diego trained before his death.

Now it’s 1850, and Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) has taken the De la Vega name (you’ll recall his original name was Murrieta).  He and Elena have been married for almost ten years, with a son named Joaquin (after Alejandro’s long-deceased outlaw brother).  Spanish California is American territory in the wake of the Mexican War and is now voting on statehood.  Although the Zorro story is traditionally set in southern California around Los Angeles, this one seems to be set in San Mateo, not far from San Francisco in northern California.  The De la Vega marriage is stressed; Elena wants Alejandro to throw in the cape and retire from the business of righting wrongs and fighting evil, while Alejandro thinks there is still a need for Zorro and resists retirement.


Scarred villain Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund).

There are still villains, almost more than the viewer can keep track of.  The initial one is Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund), a nasty, scarred American religious fanatic trying to steal the statehood elections until Zorro leads him and his men on a merry chase.  During the chase, Zorro’s identity is momentarily revealed to a couple of other Americans (Shuler Hensley and Michael Emerson).  After this exploit, Alejandro and Elena argue and separate.  Alejandro seeks solace in strong drink.

Elena takes up with a French count Armand (Rufus Sewell) she had known in school back in Spain.  He seems charming enough, but the De la Vegas don’t agree about him.  Elena serves Alejandro with divorce papers, despite the fact that they are both presumably Catholic.


The De la Vegas are still attracted to each other (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas).

As matters develop, during his brief unmasking Alejandro was identied by the two Americans, who turn out to be Pinkerton agents.  They use that knowledge to blackmail Elena into doing some spying on Armand for them, and that’s why she has broken with Alejandro.  However, they would view her demise as unfortunate but perhaps necessary to their enterprise.  The De la Vega son Joaquin thinks his father is a coward, unlike Zorro, so he’s clearly not in on the secret, and he constantly gets in trouble at school.  The nasty McGivens is working for Armand, who in turn is part of an international conspiracy (the Knights of Aragon, whose Latin motto is “Orbis Unum”—One World) which plans to weaken the U.S. before it can attain international prominence.  They plan to do that with strategic use of nitroglycerin made from soap.

Elena’s spying is discovered (she’s not very subtle about it), and she and Joaquin are taken prisoner on Armand’s train carrying the nitroglycerin to a rendezvous.  Alejandro rides as Zorro, both to stop the train and to rescue his loved ones.  He starts by defeating and killing McGivens and his minions.  He finds himself and his horse atop Armand’s train but manages not to get killed when it goes through a tunnel.  (The mounted rider atop a moving train is a sign the things are out of hand with the movie, as in 2013’s The Lone Ranger.)   Alejandro as Zorro manages to get Joaquin off the train, and he plays an active role in the rescue.  Eventually, Alejandro and Elena escape the train as it barrels toward the end of the track with Armand on the cowcatcher at the front and a car-load of nitroglycerin in bottles.  The De la Vegas are reconciled and remarried.

As with most sequels, this is not as good as the original—in this case, significantly worse.  The plot is incoherent and, with all the squabbling between Elena and Alejandro, uninteresting.  In the improbably prominent role for child Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) in the last part of the movie, he proves to be irritating, too.  There are too many villains, and consequently too many loose ends.  With a greater role for Elena than in the first movie, we can hear that Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Spanish accent is inconsistent and unpersuasive.


Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and Armand (Rufus Sewell) duel atop a train.

The story of Zorro is rooted in a particular historical place and time, and this film moves it farther from that place and time.  It seems to take place in northern California rather than in southern California.  It is quite cavalier about anachronisms:  The Pinkertons as an agency (or any agency like them) did not exist until the Civil War, about fifteen years later than 1850.  Nitroglycerin was not invented until the end of the 1860s, at least twenty years later than this film takes place.  It is unlikely that American bad guys in California in 1850 carried swords at all, let alone carrying them rather than repeating pistols.  That would place Zorro at a considerable weapons disadvantage, since he is primarily a swordsman.

On top of all that, there are many movie-making problems with the film, starting with a poor story and bad writing.  Although Zorro is acrobatic, much of the stunt work (and the editing related to the stunts) seems over the top and completely unrealistic.  This may not be quite as epically bad as, say, The Wild Wild West, but it belongs in the same category.  It had a budget of $75 million, but only made back just over $45 million, so apparently the movie-going public agreed in 2005.  It’s in color, and at 129 minutes it seems much longer than that.

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The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 27, 2014

The Mask of Zorro—Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson, Tony Amendola, Matt Letscher, L.Q. Jones (1998; Dir: Martin Campbell)


This overlong and overcomplicated revisit to the Zorro story differs from the source material (a 1919 novel by Johnston McCulley) in several ways.  One is the title.  Earlier versions with Douglas Fairbanks (1920) and Tyrone Power (1940) shared the title of the novel, The Mark of Zorro, referring to the Z that the sword-bearing bandit often carved into walls, draperies and unfortunate corrupt local officials.  Perhaps this new title emphasizes the transferability of the Zorro identity with the mask and other accoutrements.  In general, the movie is constructed as a series of set pieces and action segments, loosely held together by an erratic story.

This story has not one but two Zorros, one a dashing but untrained young outlaw (Antonio Banderas) and the other an aging former Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) seeking revenge for wrongs now a generation past.  As the movie starts in 1821, the Spanish are taking their leave of Alta California as the Mexicans under Santa Anna take possession of the Mexican realms.  The corrupt Spanish governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) makes one last attempt to capture his nemesis Zorro by excecuting three innocent peasants.  Zorro indeed makes one last appearance and rescues the three but gives away his identity to Montero.  Making a raid on the De la Vega mansion (very computer-generated in appearance), Montera’s men kill Diego’s wife Esperanza; Montero throws Diego into a dungeon and makes off with Diego’s infant daughter Elena to Spain.


Twenty years later, Montero returns, hoping to enlist those dons he had given land grants to join him in a gold-mining enterprise and takeover of California.  Diego escapes from his prison and encounters a drunken outlaw (Banderas) he recognizes as one of two Murrieta brothers who as children had helped Zorro escape during his final adventure.  The other brother, Joaquin Murrieta, has been killed by vicious American Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), who turns out to be in league with Montero.

Recognizing that his age prevents him from being Zorro still, Diego trains the hot-headed Alejandro Murrieta as a younger Zorro—in swordplay, in manners, in riding and other skills he will need.  His initial foray in the role is nearly disastrous, but through luck and the assistance of the lovely Elena Montero (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he escapes.  Together, Diego and Alejandro plot to discover Montero’s plans and thwart them.

Don Diego de la Vega:  [Indicating the sword Alejandro is holding.]  “Do you know how to use that thing?”
Alejandro Murrieta:  “Yes.  The pointy end goes into the other man.”
Diego de la Vega [Sighs.]:  “This is going to take a lot of work.”


The new Zorro (Antonio Banderas) with his mentor, the old Zorro (Anthony Hopkins).  And Diego de la Vega’s feisty daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Two of the three leads are Welsh.

Alejandro arrives at the large estate where Montero is hosting a party for the local dons whom he hopes will support his plan.  Diego masquerades as his servant Bernardo.  In the course of the evening, Alejandro engages in a passionate dance with Elena, discovers where Montero is hiding his plans and maps, and is invited to join the larger conspiracy to take California.  Diego also meets Elena without revealing his identity as her father.  Capt. Love thinks he knows who Alejandro is, although the cultured young man bears little resemblance to the hairy outlaw he had been.

Alejandro makes a return visit to the Montero hacienda as Zorro, looking for the map to the gold.  He finds it.  In a stable, he also encounters Elena again, and they engage in swordplay and banter, in which Elena loses most of her clothing while confirming the attraction between them.


At the mine, which is run with slave labor, Capt. Love kills Three-Finger Jack (L.Q. Jones), who had been in the Murrieta brothers’ gang.  Alejandro puts on his Zorro garb and engages Love in battle.  Meanwhile, Diego, who had said he would no longer be engaged in Zorro’s exploits, shows up and fights Montero.  Predictably enough, Diego beats Montero with swords, but Montero cheats and shoots Diego while using Elena for cover.  These acrobatic battles center around a wooden crane for lifting gold out of the canyon where it is mined.  In the end, Alejandro vanquishes Capt. Love, who is crushed by a falling gold wagon which also pulls Montero to his doom.  Zorro and Elena rescue locked-up slaves from a complicated explosion, and Diego dies of his wound, surrounded by his regained family–Elena and Alejandro.

Anthony Hopkins is not convincing as the 35-40-year-old Zorro, but he does fine as Diego de la Vega at 60.  Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones make an enormously attractive couple, although they’re both playing at least ten years younger than their actual ages.  Stuart Wilson is a suitably serpentine villain.  The Capt. Harrison Love character, as he is played by Matt Letscher, is neither interesting nor necessary.  He seems to be a sort of pseudo-Custer character (a vain and venal American military commander with long blond hair) who has arisen sometimes in westerns now that Custer is no longer seen as much of a hero.  (See Barry Pepper in The Lone Ranger for another example.)


A lot of money was spent on this movie, and technically it’s very well done.  There are some nice comedic touches in the dialogue.  Since this doesn’t use much of the traditional Zorro story, it seems to partake more of the episodic nature of the Disney television series from the late 1950s starring Guy Williams—yet another example, perhaps, of a movie driven by nostalgia for a past television series (e.g., The Wild Wild West, Maverick, The Lone Ranger).  One trick is to keep the moviegoer from asking the Indiana Jones question (see the first Indiana Jones movie for one approach to this question):  The essence of Zorro is the use of the sword and perhaps a whip, but, especially by 1840, how much chance does a sword-wielder actually have against firearms?  That’s why the movie almost has to be set earlier.  Zorro’s beautiful black horse Tornado (Toronado?) is said to be a black Andalusian stallion, but horse fanciers claim that he is really a Friesian.  If the Joaquin Murrieta in this movie is intended to be the notorious California outlaw from gold rush times, he is placed about fifteen years too early here; the real Murrieta was killed in 1853, after California had become a state.

The film was a commercial success.  If you don’t look for much coherence to the story, this one works well enough, although its 2005 sequel (also directed by Martin Campbell), The Legend of Zorro, is worse.  The Fairbanks and Power movies from decades earlier are still better as movies, though.  In color, at 136 minutes.


The first Zorro movie (1920, the year after the novel was published), with Douglas Fairbanks in the title role.  And a later (1940) version, with Tyrone Power as the dashing masked bandit avenging wrongs.  The character Zorro was a fictional creation, not an actual historical person.

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