Disney takes bigger, but not better, approach with 'The Lone Ranger'

Johnny Depp, left, as Tonto, and Armie Hammer, as The Lone Ranger, in a scene from the film,
Johnny Depp, left, as Tonto, and Armie Hammer, as The Lone Ranger, in a scene from the film, "The Lone Ranger."

In this age of caped superheroes, how does an antiquated masked cowboy avenger and his faithful Native American companion fit in?

Director Gore Verbinski’s solution is simple: go big. Go really big.

Judging by his resurrection of the Masked Man, Verbinski’s assumption is that today’s audiences have much less interest in the small-screen post-Civil War adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto as they do the accoutrements of summer-blockbuster entertainment.

And so the director best known for The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise crams as much big-budget exhilaration into his movie as its origin story will permit, creating a film less about its namesake as it is large-scale action sequences, explosions, and CGI stunts.

Fans of the Lone Ranger should be pleased that Verbinski and screenwriters Justin Haythe, and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio stay fairly true to the hero’s backstory. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is the sole survivor of an outlaw gang’s canyon ambush on a posse of Texas Rangers. Among the dead is John’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), who was killed by the gang’s leader Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a villain so evil he eats the hearts of his victims.

Tonto (Johnny Depp) finds the dead rangers and buries them in shallow desert graves. But a mysterious snow-colored spirit horse appears and selects John for resurrection, telling Tonto that the lawman is a spirit walker destined for great things. With Tonto providing John his new identity — the famed black mask, pure-white hat, silver bullets, and the name Lone Ranger — the pair team up to bring Butch and his gang to justice. They also must contend with a corrupt businessman named Cole (Tom Wilkinson), with his plans to instigate an unnecessary war on a peaceful group of Comanches as part of manifest destiny as railroad expansion.

Even with its easily identified heroes and villains, including Helena Bonham Carter as a madame with a unique wooden leg, and Barry Pepper as a career U.S. military leader, the plot is burdened with side stories, including a shoehorned romantic interest for John in his brother’s widow, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). Rebecca and her young son Danny (Bryant Prince) also inexplicably represent the instant family that Cole doesn’t have but desperately wants.

Wilkinson is the understated villain, a conniver and blusterer whose will is enforced by paid minions and his own gun. Fichtner is the melodramatic crazed outlaw quick with the trigger. As the film’s main antagonists, they make for an effective pair, unlike their heroic counterparts, who have little chemistry onscreen.

In the early telling of their evolution as Wild West do-gooders, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are as much adversaries as they are partners, yet The Lone Ranger offers little evidence to suggest that the pair grow into crusaders for justice. They seem more like two strange men on horses who bicker while tolerating each other just enough to accomplish shared goals.

Hammer might look the part of a dashing masked hero, but his delivery is stuck somewhere between a wink and a nod and playing it straight. The script doesn’t help him much in providing more than a few lines that are funny. Depp is playing variations of the same quirky character we’ve seen for several years. His Tonto is Jack Sparrow in a different period costume, and speaking in broken English instead of a Cockney accent.

Unlike his drunken pirate shtick, his white-faced and dead-crow-on-head medicine-man appearance and speech pattern could be considered as offensive to Native Americans today as the Uncle Remus character from 1946’s Song of the South would be to African Americans. Both films, incidentally, are from Walt Disney.

The Lone Ranger also employs a strange narrative framework, as a young boy attends a Wild West carnival show in 1933 San Francisco, where he encounters the now-leathery and nearly mummified Tonto, who recalls his first adventure with the Lone Ranger.

Other than as a reference to the Masked Man’s birth 80 years ago as a popular radio series, the narrative device serves no purpose and certainly isn’t worth the hassle of the periodic breaks in the action to a heavily made-up Depp as he acts out the story and reflects on the events. Perhaps it’s a reminder to younger audiences that kids once loved the Lone Ranger as they do Iron Man today.

What works in the movie’s favor is the topographic-heavy cinematography of Bojan Bazelli (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), which brings a classic Western presence to the The Lone Ranger, even as Verbinski often removes us from the moment with elaborate action sequences and stunts possible only through CGI, The trend reaches its zenith in the nearly half-hour train chase finale that’s either the director’s homage or creative theft of Buster Keaton from 1926’s The General. Both sequences feature gunplay on trains and a pivotal scene involving a demolished wooden bridge. Depp also spends much of his screen time at this point imitating Keaton’s brilliant physical humor and stunts, including his own ladder gag.

Add to the screen action Hans Zimmer finally breaking out the familiar “William Tell Overture,” aka “The Lone Ranger Theme,” and it should be a rollicking ride to the end. But by now the great train adventure feels much like everything that’s come before it, only at a faster pace and with bigger stakes. Even with technology nearly 90 years advanced, Verbinski’s sequence can’t compare to the dazzling entertainment of Keaton’s original work, which was done without elaborate effects. The Lone Ranger might be bigger entertainment, but it’s certainly not better.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.