Whether it’s Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z or even Fast and Furious 6, this summer has had no shortage of truly jaw-dropping action set-pieces. Of all the high-octane feats of choreographed chaos I’ve seen this summer, the big train chase of The Lone Ranger may be the most enjoyable one of them all. Set on-board two runaway trains, and scored to the famous William Tell Overture (i.e. The Lone Ranger theme), the 15 minute sequence is a wildly inventive mash of hyper-kinetic action, Buster Keaton-like acrobatic comedy, Looney Tunes slapstick, and top-notch big budget Hollywood filmmaking. It’s precisely the type of elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque sequence I expected from Gore Verbinski, the gifted filmmaker behind Rango and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
What I didn’t expect from him however was the rest of The Lone Ranger, a catastrophically-conceived, structurally unsound, and tonally misguided film that save for some scattered moments, fails as entertainment on every level. Additionally, at over two-and-a-half hours in length, the film is a bloated mess that takes far too long to tell a story that could have just as easily been told within a half-hour episode of the 1950s TV show it’s based on. The fact that the movie is still incomprehensible in spite of its bloated length is a testament to how cobbled the film’s direction and script, credited to Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, and Justin Haythe, truly is.
The film’s problems begin from the get-go with a needless framing device which finds a 100-year-old Tonto (Johnny Depp – in racist redface) narrating a half-remembered, nonsensical story to a kid at a Wild West exhibit. Instead of using this device as a bracket for the main story, Verbinksi and company make the mistake of continually flashing between the past and present thereby bringing the already languid pace of the plot to an awkward halt. It’s not clear what this wrapping device brings to the picture, other than to pad its bloated running time, to lazily patch up the screenplay’s embarrassing plot holes, and to give Depp an excuse to showboat in grotesque prosthetic makeup.
Depp, who hasn’t made a decent movie since Sweeney Todd in 2007, continues his decline into irrelevancy as a respected performer here with another needlessly-quirky oddball character that’s barely as interesting or clever as his appearance suggests. Tonto isn’t the nuttiest oddball he’s played but he may be the blandest. In a career filled with strange, sometimes brilliant choices, Depp’s decision to have Tonto walk about with a carcass of a raven on his head may be one of the strangest, and most ill-advised. Not only is it distracting but it serves no purpose to the plot.
Speaking of which, the bulk of it revolves around John Reid (Armie Hammer), a ruggedly-handsome but bookish lawyer who refashions himself into the titular masked Lone Ranger after witnessing the murder of his brother by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a notorious bandit with a penchant for eating people’s hearts (yes, this is a Disney movie). After John reluctantly teams up with Tonto, who for convolutedly-explained reasons is also after Cavendish, the duo set out to find and capture the bandit.
Perhaps realizing the derivative nature of their plot, Verbinski and company take the scenic route – packing as many subplots and characters into the equation. Character range from a forward-thinking railroad businessman (Tom Wilkinson) to a magical quasi-flying horse to a dim-witted U.S. Marshall (Barry Pepper) to a tribe of sarcastic Indians to a peg-legged Helena Bonham Carter to vampire bunny rabbits to sobbing Asian slaves to John’s sister-in-law (Ruth Wilson), who he also happens to be in love with. And that’s not even taking into account all the time Depp wastes with his weirdo performance.
Some of it is chuckle-worthy and enjoyable, but for the most part, it’s tedious. It doesn’t help that the film is a tonal dump truck that sloppily fluctuates between a buddy-comedy to gritty western to supernatural fantasy to Disney movie to half-witted message movie (there are two randomly spliced scenes in which tribes of natives are violently massacred with machine guns). Some of these tonal shifts happen over the course of the movie, some within a span of seconds. For instance, a grisly sequence of Indians being massacred by machine gun fire is almost immediately followed by a scene in which John and Tonto bicker over the right way to barbeque a bunny.
At least their bickering turns out to be one of the few highlights of the film. Hammer, a fine actor who deserves much better material than this (like The Social Network), does his best to elevate the role but there’s only so much you can do when you’re saddled with an underwritten part that on paper should be the lead but in reality is the sidekick to a nutcase who wears a raven’s carcass on his head as a fashion statement. Despite this, Hammer’s rapport and comic timing with Depp is just about the only thing, other than the excellent train chase finale, that prevents the film from being an outright disaster on the scale of The Hangover Part III, this summer’s other high-profile turkey. Unlike that abomination, at least there was some thought put into this film from the details of the action sequences to Hans Zimmer’s Once Upon A Time In the West-inspired score to Bojan Bezelli’s beautiful cinematography. It’s too bad they forgot to put any thought into the script.