The work of director Gore Verbinski is a little bit of an acquired taste. He’s an undeniably talented director, but he has sort of a weird, offbeat, sensibility to his work and several of his movies require a second viewing to really appreciate. He definitely has more accessible films – The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl work right off the bat – but other films like The Weather Man, the two Pirates sequels, and (to a lesser extent) Rango are somewhat unfairly dismissed based on awkward first impressions. He seems to revel in eccentricity and doesn’t mind taking tangential diversions to further elaborate on a story idea or bits of character development. An efficient storyteller he is not, but he has an intriguing ability to hold back layers of depth to characters that often reveal themselves over multiple viewings rather than being stripped away in front of the audience on the initial encounter. He also is an exceptionally gifted action director, envisioning and executing some of the biggest, most ambitious, and most entertaining action set pieces of all time.
Now, ten years after Curse of the Black Pearl, Verbinski is re-teaming with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, as well as Johnny Depp to bring The Lone Ranger back to the big screen.
The film seems to hew pretty close to the classic origin story, though with a few details elaborated on or altered slightly. John Reid is a lawyer who arrives in Texas to help prosecute the villainous Butch Cavendish. When Cavendish escapes custody, John joins his brother, Texas Ranger Dan Reid, to track him down. In the process, the Rangers are ambushed by Cavendish’s gang and all but John are killed. Tonto, a Native American warrior who is also in pursuit of Cavendish, witnesses the event and helps nurse John back to health. Tonto believes that John is a spirit walker, a man who cannot be killed in battle, and recruits him to aid in going after Cavendish.
Before I really get into this, I have a couple confessions to make up front. First, I have almost no experience with the character of the Lone Ranger. I’m familiar with certain elements of the iconography: the silver bullets, the William Tell Overture, “kemosabe,” “Hi-Yo Silver!,” etc., but I’ve not been exposed to the radio serial, the television series, or any of the previous films. Also, in regards to my earlier statement about Gore Verbinski’s films being an acquired taste, I’ve already drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. I think he’s a brilliant director, and though many of his films have obvious flaws, I enjoy most of them quite a lot. After all, I’m the guy who loves the oft-maligned Pirates trilogy enough to spend what will probably be three months of my life in the pursuit of giving them the most comprehensive critical analysis possible and to explain why I think they’re great (and why I think Pirates 4 can go jump in a lake). So when I say that I enjoyed The Lone Ranger quite a bit, I do so acknowledging that many people’s reactions will be wildly different from mine.
But yeah, I liked The Lone Ranger. I didn’t love it, and it definitely has a lot of very distinct problems, but despite these problems I enjoyed the film. In many ways, The Lone Ranger is very similar to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. On a surface level they’re absolutely different, yet both movies have comparable problems in story structure and pacing while having similar ways of overcoming said problems. I don’t want to get into this too much in this review, because I really don’t want to upstage my forthcoming Pirates columns (shameless self-promotion: part 1 hits on July 9), but suffice it to say both movies have lots of separate pieces that all need to be set up in the beginning, both movies are very long and struggle with pace, especially in their earlier scenes, yet both end on the highest of high notes, building through problematic early story beats to absolutely stunning finales.
Length and pacing are probably the biggest obstacles The Lone Ranger faces, at two-and-a-half hours this is a long film and there’s a lot of fat that could easily have been trimmed. There’s a largely useless framing device where an aged Tonto retells the story of the film to a wide-eyed kid in a Lone Ranger costume. This is mainly done as an excuse to have more scenes of Johnny Depp doing Johnny Depp things, but in an already long movie these should have been easy cuts to make. There’s also an extended cameo from Helena Bonham Carter that does add some of that oddball Gore Verbinski flavor to the film, but fails to pay off as anything more than an expository scene. That being said, I never got bored with the film; even when it was wandering off on tangents. Again, this may be due in large part to how much I enjoy Verbinski as a filmmaker, but even these sections of meandering plottiness were made enjoyable by entertaining character moments, fun sequences of action, or even just amusing weirdness. Even scenes that were sort of wasted from a story standpoint were given the illusion of importance due to strong direction and a solid sense of humor.
There are also some issues with the film shifting rapidly between different tones. At one moment the film can be really dark and violent then be followed up almost immediately by scenes of over-the-top silliness. These kinds of rapid-fire tonal shifts would usually give an audience whiplash, but again, I wasn’t bothered by them; they felt oddly appropriate given Verbinski’s style, and I was absolutely along for the ride. In fact, the way that the jokes pulled the rug out from under the more serious moments of the film made them all the more funny to me. I know some people will feel it’s crass, but to me it helped keep the thing from being too self-serious. The whole movie is done with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, and the film has fun playing with the campier elements of the Lone Ranger’s iconography. Some may cry foul over this, claim the film is failing to honor the legacy of its title character, but again, none of this bothers me. Embracing the silliness inherent in the character is much better, in my opinion, than trying to retrofit the character to a modern “coolness” while stripping away what made him special (*cough* Man of Steel). It revels in the anachronism of the whole thing, and is all the more fun for it. Also, continuing the comparison to Man of Steel, it’s worth noting that the Lone Ranger is simply not the same type of timeless character that Superman is. The Lone Ranger was a huge staple of pop culture in his heyday, but he’s largely faded into obscurity. He’s not an icon in the same way that Superman is, and a bit of irreverence feels okay. That being said, they make sure to keep the core of the character heroic. From more-or-less the first moment he appears on screen he’s trying to help people, going out of his way to protect those in danger (more than can be said of a certain son of Krypton in his most recent film), and throughout the film he maintains a commitment to pursuing justice rather than revenge.
Armie Hammer does a good job with the title role, bringing to it a fair amount of charisma and heart. It would have been easy for the character who’s essentially playing the straight man to get lost in a movie as off the wall as this, but Hammer is a distinct presence in the film and never gets overwhelmed by it. Credit also has to go to Gore Verbinski for knowing how to handle the relationship between the protagonist of the film and his larger than life costars. Ever since Johnny Depp caught the general public’s attention with Captain Jack Sparrow there’s been a plethora of Johnny Depp in a funny wig characters, but most filmmakers don’t really understand how to use that type of character. That type of character really only works when the story is not about him; he has to be a supporting role, influencing the stories of the main characters, but never taking the leading role himself. Even Depp’s most famous collaborator, Tim Burton, fails to understand this basic dynamic. Verbinski is one of few who really understands how to use it, and that understanding is on display here. This could have very easily been the Tonto show, with John Reid just fading into the background while Johnny Depp chews on the scenery, but instead the movie commits to telling Reid’s story. Tonto is a major presence, but he never hijacks the Lone Ranger’s journey. The only time it gets annoying is in the aforementioned framed narrative sequences, but thankfully those take up a fairly minimal amount of screen time.
As a brief aside, it’s worth mentioning that this is by far the hardest PG-13 yet released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner. The movie is very violent, more so than any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and there’s also a level of off-screen and implied violence that recalls some of the more graphic scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I’ll let you decide whether or not this is a good thing – personally I didn’t mind it, as I thought it contributed to both the grit of a western and the over the top nature of a Verbinski film, but an argument could fairly be made that it’s inappropriate for a Disney movie based on a character that has previously appealed to kids – but it’s worth pointing out that this may not be one to take younger kids to.
There are problems throughout most of the film, I won’t deny that, but part of what makes the movie work is that it basically functions as a slow buildup to an absolutely sublime finale. During the last 20 minutes of the film Gore Verbinski pulls out all the stops and captures on film one of the most stunning action sequences ever realized. This sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you that the sequence is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Its closest match is incidentally Verbinski’s already ambitious Maelstrom sequence from Pirates 3, but Verbinski doesn’t repeat himself here. Instead he crafts an incredible chase/fight that takes place on top, and inside of, two trains running parallel to, and crossing paths with each other. It combines the best of modern Hollywood action with a Buster Keaton-esque emphasis on visual storytelling and physicality. This is a scene that should be one for the ages, but I fear the overall negative critical reaction to the film will prevent this sequence from ever having the recognition it deserves. For some, the long buildup to this moment will be too much for them, but for me, when the William Tell Overture kicked in and the sequence took off it sealed the deal on this movie. I already enjoyed the rest of the film in spite of its problems, but the ending served to elevate everything preceding it. If it didn’t pay off with a really great final sequence the movie would have probably collapsed under its own weight, but the finale absolutely shatters any expectations and makes sure to end the movie in the best possible way.
The Lone Ranger is a highly imperfect film; it’s long, it’s messy, and it’s indulgent, but at the same time I found it very entertaining for its humor, its impeccably executed action sequences, and Gore Verbinski’s signature flavor that permeates the whole film. I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy the film as much as I did, but I would recommend seeing it in theaters, if for no other reason than that the last 20 minutes of the film demand to be seen on the biggest screen with the biggest crowd possible. It’s not technically as good as some other films that have come out this summer, but despite all its flaws, it’s one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the theater all year.