By Mark Saldana
Rating: 2.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Humor, realism, heroic action, peril, fantasy and drama are all elements that a good hero story should have. As with my review of Man of Steel, I will delve into these elements and how the right mix/balance of all these ingredients can make or break a hero film. Again, the era in which a film is set and released play important roles in determining which element gets more emphasis and, in converse, less emphasis. In emphasizing realism and gravity, movies like Man of Steel and, even more so, The Amazing Spider-Man lose some of that fantasy magic, the heroic posturing that usually makes people smile and applaud.
Marvel’s The Avengers achieved success because Joss Whedon and Zak Penn blended everything perfectly. Audiences were treated to superheroic action, nail biting peril, hilarious and witty humor, credibility, and superb story and character development. Granted, this film did have the advantage of being set up by previous films. Still, other past films have successfully told origin stories and still had a lovely combination of these ingredients.
The Lone Ranger character is a hero, but a more reality based one, so it should have an advantage as far as its ease of believability. The classic television adventures of “that masked man” and his loyal sidekick, Tonto, may have not had a huge budget, but it made for fun, entertaining, and moderately serious television. Sure, Tonto did play up Native American stereotypes, but he never was treated as a buffoon or clown. He always served as a valuable assistant to Clayton Moore’s courageous hero. So here we are in 2013, but as I watched the latest incarnation of the masked Texas Ranger, I often questioned, why is Tonto being even more stereotypically portrayed, and as a quirky and somewhat clownish caricature? Another question that came to mind had to do with the not-so-heroic, and even more buffoonish way that the lead “hero” of the story is depicted. In addition to these problems, the silly and goofy tone of the movie sloppily mixed with occasional gravity makes for an unusual incarnation of the Lone Ranger. This clearly isn’t our father’s or grandfather’s masked hero and sidekick, though director Gore Verbinsky and his crew occasionally try to force it in that direction.
The basic story remains true to the origins of this legendary hero who first appeared in radio serials during the 1930s. John Reid (Armie Hammer), a new attorney returns home to join his Texas Ranger brother Dan in the law enforcement business. When the infamous outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and his gang trap tand attack he Reids and their team, John is the only one to survive. Found by the strange and unusual Native American Tonto, Reid quickly recovers and discovers what Cavendish and his men are truly after. The Lone Ranger and Tonto team-up to put an end to his nefarious plot, but must figure out a way to put their differences aside first.
Because Gore Verbinsky and the same producers who brought us the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are the people behind this film, I think it is safe to say that most people are expecting a comedic version of the Lone Ranger with Depp as a quirky and silly character again. That expectation is pretty much on the money. However, not all audiences want a humorous western story with an even goofier hero. I know I didn’t. Even Depp’s character began to grate on me after a while. I did find some of his comedic scenes funny and amusing, but his schtick got old rather quickly. It didn’t help that his handful of gags and habits get repeated often. If writers Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio and Depp had come up with a wider variety of amusing characteristics and scenarios for the Tonto character, then I would have probably enjoyed the tone more.
In fact because the Lone Ranger himself is more of a reluctant and weak hero and never really makes a strong and powerful transition to the role of a man willing to fight for justice, I felt little respect for his character and had trouble believing he could honestly stop the villains from carrying out their plans. William Fichtner makes for an excellent Butch Cavendish. He nails his role as a frightening and grotesque psychopath. His character is so well realized and believably skilled that it is almost insulting that a weak clown of cowboy can stop him. To be fair, it isn’t completely Armie Hammer’s fault. Based on his previous work, I do think he has the ability to portray a strong lead hero, but doesn’t really get the opportunity to do so here.
As for Depp, audiences will get the expected performance for better or worse. I read in an interview that he felt confident that his portrayal of Tonto would not insult Native Americans. I’m not so sure that is a true statement. His broken English delivery along with all his bizarre ticks and habits doesn’t do much to honor them; that’s for sure. The film’s story does offer an explanation for Tonto’s behavior, but I don’t feel this will suffice. Depp’s Tonto is a clown played for laughs and though his character may occasionally outsmart his lead, too much emphasis is placed on the attempted humor which definitely has more misses than hits.
Verbinsky and his writers can’t seem to balance the comedy, drama and action because of the heavy emphasis on the comedy. It does delve into dark and violent content which adds some welcome drama to the overindulgent levity, but there is way too little of this in the film. The movie does have some fun action, particularly the climactic sequence that involves some good old fashioned horse riding and exciting stunts of classic American westerns, but this sequence and the one that begins the film serve as bookends for a bloated and way too lengthy middle.
I think I would have tolerated this humorous take on the Lone Ranger better if so many of the jokes and gags hadn’t been so lame. I would have preferred a more serious take on the heroes, because this version plays out so weakly. I have given Verbinsky’s The Lone Ranger a generous 2.5 Stars (Out of 4) because the movie does have some enjoyable humor, exciting old school Western action, and an outstanding villain. The movie does have its likable qualities, but plenty of frustrating problems as well. This film is an example of a hero movie whose filmmakers couldn’t get the formula quite right.