Monday, July 8, 2013

The Cinema File #214: “The Lone Ranger” Review

Given the presence of Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and Disney, many have compared The Lone Ranger favorably and unfavorably to The Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, applying the same high impact action comedy style of the successful swashbuckler to the equally over the hill Western genre. While the comparison makes sense, I couldn't shake the memory of a completely different movie, 2011's The Green Hornet starring Seth Rogen. Both films are attempts to revive a long dead franchise that is completely unrelatable to a modern audience, both feature an annoyingly ineffectual hero propped up by a much more capable non-white sidekick who speaks in broken English, and both co-star actor Tom Wilkinson. In fact, for all you trivia nerds out there, The Lone Ranger is actually the The Green Hornet's great uncle, both with the surname Reid (look it up!). Also, unlike the Pirates movies, both represent massive financial failures that deserve their lack of success, being entertaining to a point, but ultimately terribly misguided.

The Lone Ranger follows John Reid, a district attorney in the Old West who is left for dead by outlaws and dons a mask to become a crime fighter and avenge his brother's death with the help of his Native American guide Tonto. Well, that's not entirely right. To be more accurate, this is the story of Tonto, a mentally disturbed Native American hunting a cannibalistic bandit, who reluctantly saves a foppish city boy from death and then proceeds to continue rescuing him from various dangers for two and a half hours, because the guy whose supposed to be the hero is a complete pussy. This movie should have been called Tonto And The Lone Ranger, or maybe Tonto And The Useless Pretty Boy. There's a reason the actor who plays the title character doesn't even get first billing, and its not just Depp's greater star power.

Okay, yeah, its mostly that, but can you blame them? Armie Hammer isn't a bad actor; he plays a mean Winklevoss twin and is certainly handsome enough to be a leading man, but he just doesn't have the chops to be an action star. Johnny Depp carries this movie and makes it look easy as always, doing about as valiant a job as possible under the circumstances. Regrettably, even his immeasurable talents aren't enough. It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't have so far to carry it. At 149 minutes, the running time is not so much a necessity to articulate what is frankly an incredibly slight and cliche narrative, as much as it is a karmic punishment for my past criticism of the self indulgent expansion of Peter Jackson's Hobbit franchise, which despite not needing to be a franchise, at least has a sizable enough audience to justify the existence of one.

Has there been some sort of Editor strike in Hollywood for the past few years that just hasn't gotten a lot of media attention? Why does every movie nowadays have to be so painfully long? To The Lone Ranger's credit, much of the length goes to the many admittedly well choreographed action scenes, which are often clever enough to make the time it takes to get through them seem less than it is. Verbinski utilizes the same manic energy and rapid fire, coincidence heavy acrobatics that made the Pirates movie so much fun to watch, and its usually enough to distract you from the lack of plot and poorly realized characters, but not every time, and I found myself desperately checking my watch at several points despite knowing I don't even wear one, as if trying to will one onto my wrist so it could tell me all this would soon be over.

And its not all just the action scenes eating up the time. A lot of it is wasted by a structure in which one character's inability to accept his destiny and learn the lesson we all know he's gonna learn by the end artificially inflates the length of the plot. The Lone Ranger toils with self doubt and the distinction between the law of the corrupt and the nobility of the outlaw in a corrupt system, but only so that we have an excuse for the villains to remain active long enough to get to the next action set piece. Its not even that the hero learns his lesson or really changes all that much by the end apart from a greater degree of self-confidence, but then that's mostly because all the time that could have been spent developing him as a complex character with enough room to evolve over the course of the story was taken up by trains colliding and repetitive plot turns.

The real hero of the story, Depp's eccentric Tonto, fairs a little better, and is pretty much the only thing in the movie that is genuinely entertaining from beginning to end. The concerns over racism, while perfectly valid from a historical perspective, should be instantly assuaged by the charm and quiet dignity he brings to the role, which shines through even as most of his dialogue is couched in deadpan absurdity. Far from a Captain Jack retread, he is able to express a much larger range of emotional depth even as he is much less passionate on the surface, handling the serious moments along with the comedy in a way Sparrow would never even be expected to. His is the only character you have any reason to care about, and it becomes apparent fairly early on that the movie recognizes this and plays to its strengths as much as possible.

The other characters are surprisingly disappointing given the pedigree of the cast. William Fichtner's man eater Cavendish is an interesting villain at first, but is never quite used to his full potential and ultimately falls prey to Bane Syndrome, becoming relegated to a henchman for a greater but much less interesting villain in the third act (see The Dark Knight Rises for titular examples). Strangely, a relatively minor villain played by Barry Pepper proved to be my favorite antagonist, if only for one moment where he is shown to have a somewhat complicated moral reason for his actions, but by that point he felt like one bad guy too many. Ruth Wilson is completely wasted in a thankless love interest role, and Helena Bonham Carter's character is absolutely pointless, seemingly only in the movie to make us think Tim Burton directed it, and to add a weird sort-of steampunk element and an even weirder scene involving amputee fetishism.

Speaking of which, the tone of this movie, which on the whole is all over the place but not necessarily to the point of distraction or annoyance, is surprisingly adult and even dark for a Disney movie. As I mentioned earlier, one of the main villains is a cannibal, and this is not just something that's said about him or alluded to, but something that is demonstrated, albeit just off screen. The guy literally cuts out a man's heart and eats it, and even though we don't see it, we do hear it, and see the horrified reaction on the face of the victim's brother, not to mention the pea soup vomit of another onlooker. If that's not enough, I honestly can't think of the last Disney movie I saw with this many whores in it (no wait, I think it was Air Bud). For the record, none of this is a criticism, as these morbid little touches only enhanced the film for me personally, but anyone expecting a standard family adventure should be warned.

And while we're on the subject of things I actually liked, the use of magic and mysticism, or to be more precise the conspicuous lack of it was a pleasant surprise given my expectations going in. This story was presented in the trailers as the tale of a man brought back from the dead by a Native American shaman to exact supernatural vengeance, but really, none of the 'magic' in the movie is unexplainable by coincidence or the lies of a benign but unstable and unreliable guide, up to and including whether the resurrected hero was ever really dead in the first place. In light of the stylistic connection to the Pirates movies I worried that the magical element would be much more overt, which based on how the movie actually turned out, really would not have worked at all.

At the risk of making this review as long as the movie, I do have to point out one more thing that bothered me about the film, namely the villain's ultimate scheme. Spoilers are ahead, so skip to the end if you don't want to here this. In addition to being kind of silly, involving a hostile takeover of railroad interests so obviously illegal I can't imagine it would ever hold up as anything other than evidence of guilt at trial, the plot revolves around breaking a long standing treaty with a Native American tribe in order to build railroad tracks connecting our two coasts. The heroes are obviously intent on stopping the evil railroad people in defense of the Native Americans, and they do (sort of), but the problem is, assuming this exists in the same universe as ours, we know enough about history to know how futile this all is. Maybe this one guy wasn't able to exploit Native Americans to gain control of the railroad, but some dastardly villain or villains eventually did, unless this is sort of a Tarantino Inglorious Bastards situation where the sequel will have Tonto stopping the Trail of Tears just in the nick of time. Considering how they dodged the racism bullet so deftly this time, I can't imagine that will be the case.

Not that this movie will ever get a sequel, because as I mentioned before, it appears to be bombing, at least as of this writing. I can't say I feel bad for it. White House Down's poor box office, while understandable, is sad given how unabashedly enjoyable that movie is, but if any movie deserves to be made an example of, its The Lone Ranger. The budget for this was reportedly pretty massive, so much so that many of the principles needed to take pay cuts to keep the production afloat, and maybe after this and After Earth, studios will finally start being a little more hesitant to put so much good money after bad. Yeah, probably not, but a guy can dream, right? Or maybe its a vision sent from the Great Spirit, in the form of a dead bird that I keep feeding in the hopes that it will make a difference. Wonder what this symbolism could possibly mean...

(Oh, and one more quick note, if you do see this movie, do yourself a favor and don't stay for the credits. I know it seems like something is going to happen, but it doesn't. Don't let this movie play you for a fool like it did me.)

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