The story of the Lone Ranger has been told many times, on radio, in adventure novels, a TV series and several unsuccessful films. Surely it has never been given such a strange rendition as in the latest failed movie adaptation. The film is a bloated, incoherent would-be epic that stumbles like a horse that stepped in too many plot holes and came up lame.
The film opens in 1933 with the ancient, moth-eaten Tonto (Johnny Depp in Methuselah makeup) a Wild West carny exhibit. He’s not a very big draw. He recounts his escapades with Kemosabe to a single wide-eyed kid in a Lone Ranger getup. He offers a patchy series of adventures, jump-cutting from one would-be high point to the next. The boy interrupts frequently, commenting on the old man’s unlikely, inconsistent version of events. The aim in bouncing between past and present, I guess, is to distract us from the many scenes that are only sketched in.
The big draw of the film is Depp, and there are many moments of wit and surprise in his performance. It’s remarkable how many laughs he can get out of laconic, grunting dialogue and stoic reserve. He’s stronger than the protagonist. The film makes the majestically weird Tonto and the prim, city-boy masked lawman into the kind of antagonistic, one-upping partners who test each other with every inflection, and Tonto never loses.
Armie Hammer plays the Ranger, a k a John Reid, as an accident-prone tenderfoot with just the right tone, so that when he does something silly you like him for it. He discovers his inner daredevil after Tonto pronounces him a “spirit walker” who cannot be killed in battle. (Why this college-educated rationalist would take a goofball shaman’s word for a thing like that is not addressed.)
John vows revenge when his Texas Ranger brother is killed by the diabolical outlaw Butch Cavendish (the ever-quirky William Fitchner in a long dark coat, scraggly whiskers and half an upper lip). Since Tonto has his own score to settle with Butch, he joins the search.
The film is directed by Gore Verbinski like a landlocked sequel to his “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. If the gorge-the-eyes-and-rattle-the brain excesses of the later sequels entertained you, you may have a good time here. I was swept along for the first hour, drinking in the dusty, sun-blasted Sergio Leone production design, the operatic landscapes and thundering locomotive crack-ups. Then plot overload began to choke the life out of the piece, and problems of emotional tone started rotting the foundation. Even Hans Zimmer’s insistent, Ennio Morricone-tinged score can’t put the film back on course.
Verbinski tries to crowd in ideas from all sorts of westerns, from “Blazing Saddles” to Peckinpah blood ballets. The old movies he’s running in his head don’t fit together. What will the kids in the audience make of the scene where a half-dozen riders are shot off their horses one after another by snipers? Or the extended battle scene where U.S. troops (commanded by a Custer-like Barry Pepper) use Gatling guns to cut down hundreds of braves?
Verbinski likes his movies packed with colorful characters, but gets so involved in their side stories that the main thrust of the story wafts away. It’s not enough that Tom Wilkinson, as a grasping railroad baron, has a wicked scheme: He also has intrigues plotted against his own rail company and a romantic interest in John Reid’s widowed sister-in-law. You could fill a boxcar with this guy’s motivations, and it’d all be excess baggage. Helena Bonham Carter hobbles through the piece as a frontier madam with a prosthetic ivory leg that contains a shotgun. Why? For the same reason that the frontier town has a whorehouse with a dance floor the size of a football field as well as a vast traveling freak show that would bankrupt Barnum & Bailey. Just because.
The later sections of the film are such a succession of hollow blockbuster scenes you wonder how the team worked up the energy to keep going. Even viewing it is arduous: William Tell Overdrive. If you could buy a reduced ticket for just the first hour, I’d recommend it.