Fuck it. I loved THE LONE RANGER. I’m not gonna downplay it. It doesn’t surprise me it’s not a runaway hit, ’cause it’s a cowboy from a fuckin radio play, for chrissakes. Every several years they sink a bunch of money into a movie based on an old timey adventure hero like The Phantom, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, John Carter, or this guy, and maybe with the exception of Zorro they’ve all failed to make money or capture the public consciousness. But I tend to like these kinds of movies, so thank you, corporations, for losing so much scratch on my behalf, especially this time. Here we have the most artful and original of any of those mentioned. I wouldn’t expect everybody to want to see it, but I honestly can’t comprehend the hatred for it by people who have.
It’s made by Team Pirates of the Caribbean: director Gore Verbinski, star Johnny Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, studio Walt Disney, writers Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot (this time with Justin Haythe, who wrote SNITCH), composer Hans Zimmer. And I personally really like their three Pirates movies, so keep that in mind, but this is much more concise and focused. I’m not gonna say it’s better than PIRATES 2, with all those crazy creatures and shit, but it’s faster moving and better structured.
See, with the PIRATES movies you have the funny rogue Jack Sparrow, but you have to give equal screen time to developing all these more serious characters, like Will and Elizabeth, who have to grow up and meet and get into trouble and fall in love and all that shit. And I like their story, but LONE RANGER combines any seriousness with the humorous pair of Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie “the man who would’ve been Batman” Hammer as John Reid, a non-violent lawyer who becomes the masked vigilante cowboy sometimes known as the Lone Ranger.
Like the Seth Rogen/Michel Gondry take on the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s son THE GREEN HORNET, but with more success, LONE RANGER turns the degraded minority sidekick into the mastermind of the operation, and in this case also the lead of the movie. Tonto’s actually not the sidekick, he’s the mentor. He brings Reid back from death, convinces him to wear the mask and brings him to get revenge on his brother’s killer, but as opposed to previous kemosabe-worshipping versions of Tonto – and in true buddy movie fashion – he thinks the guy’s a fuckin idiot. He’d really prefer to bring back Reid’s badass Texas Ranger brother (James Badge Dale), so much so that he tries to convince a spirit animal that it’s all a mistake and gives the Heavens an exasperated “what the fuck?” shrug. Then he drags Reid’s unconscious head across rocks and through horse shit.
The killer they’re after is William Fichtner as Butch Cavendish, a cannibalistic outlaw with a cartoonishly ugly facial scarring, representative of the types of dudes you’ll see in this movie. Verbinski brings his Disneyland style exaggeration and attention-to-detail to a western landscape. It’s a world of squinty roughnecks and withered, silver-toothed caricatures, so all kinds of great character actors get their weird mugs in there. I noticed for example Robert Baker (that cool backyard fighter/wannabe cockfighter guy from Justified), a bearded Matt O’Leary (the junkie trafficker from EDEN), Barry Pepper, Stephen Root. And a whole lot of interesting-looking guys I couldn’t name.
It’s jam-packed with little details and visual gags, like a Sousa-playing brass band dragged along by a train that pulls their stage out from under them, later returning injured, earnestly playing their flattened horns. Or there’s the outlaw who steals and wears women’s garments – never commented on, except when he protests “It’s not what it looks like. I just like purty things!” – who nervously/fetishistically sucks on (his own?) hair braid. And you can imagine that they go all out for the rowdy brothel customers, or the circus sideshow. There’s always something extra going on, what Walt Disney called “plussing.” And to think they abandoned plans to have the bad guys be werewolves to keep the budget down!
(There are enough remnants in the script to see how it would’ve worked, but the way they rewrote it to lead to a big realization for Tonto is perfect. Probly should’ve ditched the man-eating rabbit scene, though. Not sure what was up with that.)
The PIRATESes are full of Looney-Tunes type action (Jack Sparrow on a runaway water wheel chased by cannibals), some of which is really clear, some of which is hard to see through the visual chaos of elaborate camera moves and fast edits. Same goes for his gorgeous but narratively-muddled cartoon movie RANGO (an animal remake of that most thrilling of westerns, the water conspiracy from CHINATOWN). In THE LONE RANGER all the action sequences are perfectly clear and meticulously choreographed, a series of outlandish chain reactions and lucky moves often taking place on top of, underneath, inside, or between speeding trains. (In one scene the Ranger rides a horse inside a train, firing through the windows into another train. Possibly an homage to the motorcycle chase inside the train in TORQUE?)
Apparently it’s 149 minutes, so I can’t claim it’s short, but it didn’t seem too long to me. I mean, it’s a western, and it’s shorter than ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (an obvious influence, and victim of wholesale theme-song-ripping-off) or THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. It’s shorter than PIRATES 2 and 3, not much longer than PIRATES 1 or MASK OF ZORRO, the Rossio and Elliot-scripted old-timey adventure movie this reminds me of most. Similar tone and subject matter, more laughs, absurdity and silent comedy homages. At times it also reminded me of ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (with its crazy old man telling a child possible tall tales) as well as 1941 and PAINT YOUR WAGON (for their high end depictions of epic, comedically timed mayhem).
There’s a precision to LONE RANGER that I don’t think is present in the PIRATESes. Reid’s brother gives his son a slingshot, tells him he should be shooting rabbits by the time he gets back. When he never comes back the kid’s uncle Lone Ranger and the railroad baron Coal (Tom Wilkinson) compete for surrogate father status. But Coal is a rich asshole who makes the kid feed him grapes. Tonto, secretly climbing along the undercarriage, trades a silver bullet (made from the kid’s dead father’s melted badge) for a grape. Later, when the shit goes down, the kid slings grapes at Coal as if to say “fuck you for degrading me like this!” and one into Tonto’s mouth as if to say “thank you.” And of course he throws the bullet to his uncle who shoots it to knock the gun out of Coal’s hand to save his mother. Each little incident is a gear that spins another gear and leads to the larger function of the machine, like the pocket watch that Tonto carries as a reminder of his mission.
I’ve read complaints that other characters don’t get much screen time, but of course I think that was the right decision. In one scene Tonto and Reid go to a brothel where they meet Helena Bonham Carter as a madam with a gun built into her fancy
china ivory prosthetic leg. They get the information they need out of her and we get everything we need to know before she shows up to help out at the end. I’m also thankful for the fairly limited time spent on the sister-in-law/sort-of-love-interest/hostage character (Ruth Wilson), although admittedly a more spunky performance in those few scenes could’ve made us care about her more when she gets involved in the action at the end.
One thing that didn’t occur to me would be in the movie, but is used very prominently: The William Tell Overture, or “Lone Ranger theme song” as I always thought of it. I couldn’t help but smile that the giant climactic action set piece was set to it. It’s so perfect because it’s associated with the Lone Ranger, but also it’s great for a “physical funny business set to classical music” type of thing, and at the same time it has a sense of genuine adventure, and yet is about as far as you could possibly get from your standard 2013 blockbuster scoring (most of which is created by or copying Zimmer, incidentally). Nothing against his team’s bombastic scores for the PIRATES movies, but it’s really refreshing to get this instead.
It’s Depp’s movie, but I think Hammer is great in it, able to be funny without being an ass or undermining his heroism. John Reid is naively idealistic about the law and all the more likable for it. Fallible and dorky but believably capable when the shit goes down.
I actually did grow up watching the old Lone Ranger show on TV, but I don’t really remember what the appeal was exactly, and I’m skeptical of the reviews I’ve seen by people claiming to be offended that this movie makes a joke out of him. I mean more power to you if it really does bother you, but I think we can all see this is an antiquated character, created for a medium that no longer exists, in a genre that barely survives, with racial depictions we’re all ashamed of now. To re-create it at face value would be ridiculous. I prefer their idea of capturing some of the fun of the character while using him to comment on the racial inequality of the stories and of the historical setting, much like the way THE PHANTOM reworks its hero as a guardian of Africans instead of their god, spending his time stealing treasures from western museums and returning them to their original owners.
They’ve created a really enjoyable Tonto-Lone Ranger relationship here so although I usually hate those “make fun of the character’s perceived silliness by modern standards” jokes I loved the Lone Ranger doing one of his trademarks for the first time and being shot down by Tonto saying, “Never do that again.” It plays off of the squareness of their Lone Ranger and their Tonto’s disgust with him. It’s a funny joke, and after all these years Tonto deserves to deliver the punchline.
The movie doesn’t just give lip service to the white man’s poor treatment of the natives, it’s all about it, going so far as to be harshly framed by an elderly Tonto telling the story from a diorama in a penny-ante museum, labelled “The Noble Savage In His Natural Habitat.” When Wilkinson’s white railroad baron gives a speech about peace between the races, he of course intends to follow no such path. When we see an Indian attack on a settlement, complete with scalping, it’s quickly revealed to be white men in disguise, staging a Comanche treaty-violation so private business can slaughter them for profit. When a fierce Army General (Pepper) finds out he massacred Comanches based on a lie he’s crushed, then decides it’s better to accept the lie and go on believing he’s the good guy. When the Comanches retaliate we root for them. Ultimately John Reid changes his views of civilization vs. savagery and disavows enforcing the law of his genocidal culture.
Here, I can prove it:
Many have called Depp’s Tonto a “buffoon.” Fine, but only in the sense that he’s more Bugs Bunny than Crazy Horse. His odd dress and mysticism, decried of course as a stereotype by people who won’t see the movie, is explicitly revealed in the text to not have a basis in tribal custom. When Reid is captured by Comanches they tell him that Tonto is not part of their tribe, he’s a crazy dude with a tragic story and an amusing hobby of fucking with the white man. In other words, he’s not representative of Native Americans. He’s just Tonto.
He’s also, by the way, a badass who flips and slams Reid with one arm, fearlessly hangs under speeding trains and doesn’t wince when he’s buried up to the neck with the cavalry’s horses running over his head. He’s the toughest and funniest character in the movie, and the one the kids – if Disney ever gets any of them to see it – will want to be when they’re playing on the playground. That’s one of the things I think race-based criticisms of the movie are completely missing.
Yeah, let’s get into it. I think the main reason this movie isn’t making the money they wanted it to is because it’s the fuckin Lone Ranger, and it’s a western. That’s not really what $200 million worth of people are gonna rush out to see. But it doesn’t help their case that alot of people also find it offensive that Johnny Depp, a white man, is playing a Comanche.
But Depp sees his performance as a compliment. He told Entertainment Weekly during the filming, “I always felt Native Americans were badly portrayed in Hollywood films over the decades. It’s a real opportunity for me to give a salute to them. Tonto was a sidekick in all the Lone Ranger series. [This film] is a very different approach to that partnership. And a funny one I think.”
I believe 100% that Depp is legit in his intentions of playing Tonto, and that he’s done a good thing. I’ve gotten into more than one heated argument with friends about this topic. In one recent case a total stranger overheard and joined in against me. In all cases I made no traction at all in convincing anyone of anything. But having seen the movie now I’m not budging on this myself, so here I’m gonna bull-headedly try to win you guys over to my side.
The argument against it is that Johnny Depp is a white guy, can’t they give the role to a real Native American actor. But he’s part Cherokee, I say, and he got Disney to do it because he wants there to be more positive Native American characters on screen. What is he, 1/16 Cherokee? Does he want a scholarship? Well, how Cherokee does he have to be for you to be okay with him being proud of it? Are you saying because we think of him as a white guy he can’t talk about any other part of his heritage? Is this different from if you told Vin Diesel or The Rock or Maya Rudolph they weren’t black enough? Or white or Samoan enough? “I’m sorry, we don’t think of you as black, so just don’t be black please.” I’m not saying that, I’m just saying why can’t they have a full blooded Native American actor play Tonto?
Of course it would be awesome if a full on, raised-on-the-reservation Native American actor got to star in a giant Disney summer event movie. Also, it would be great if he had the unique vision of this weird character and gave this great of a performance and worked as well with this team of people that Johnny Depp works with. Who do you have in mind?
I mean I understand, it’s a nice sentiment, but I’m telling you it has no basis in the reality of movie-making. Johnny Depp is one of the biggest movie stars in the world and they already cancelled this movie at one point and almost didn’t make it (and now probly wish they’d stuck with that). If you want to do a lower budget LONE RANGER at some other studio with somebody Native enough for your tastes playing Tonto then good luck. But I bet you 1) no studio is gonna make that movie, 2) if they do they won’t figure out how to get even this many people to see it and 3) if they do see it their kids will go home and fight about who gets to be the Lone Ranger, because who the fuck wants to be Adam Beach? I mean, nothing against him, but he’s no Johnny Depp.
That’s what it comes down to for me. This is not taking away a role from a Native American actor, it’s adding a role that otherwise would not exist. Realistically it’s a choice between a big budget Disney movie this summer where not-Cherokee-enough-for-you Johnny Depp plays a cool, memorable Native American character, or no movies this summer with any Native American characters in them. That would’ve been the alternative. And I say take option 1. Baby steps.
This is something that frustrates me with alot of people on my end of the political spectrum, we’re so idealistic that if we can’t get everything we want then we want to toss out the whole deal. The first time I got into this Tonto argument it morphed into an even more uphill battle involving Disney Princesses. (Apologies to the friend I had this argument with if she’s reading.) I’m defending the intentions of Disney’s POCAHONTAS, she thinks it’s racist ’cause it’s corny and not culturally/historically accurate and thinks they whitewash this story by turning it into a G-rated cartoon musical. I say don’t you gotta give them credit for making a movie for children with a brave and beautiful Native American heroine standing up against genocidal colonialist bad guys, isn’t this an improvement from what they did in PETER PAN? But she doesn’t think that’s good enough… she starts laying into Tiana from THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, because her prince is white or light-skinned or something, why can’t she have a black prince. I say wait a minute, I if it was a black prince you’d be complaining “why do the two black characters gotta get together, does Disney got a problem with interracial love?” I contend that there is for sure no possible scenario where you’re happy with Disney’s depiction of a Native American or black princess, and therefore I believe you’re really asking them not to try, to just have white princesses.
There’s no winning that argument. It’s a quagmire. Good thing I brought it up again, huh? Ah, shit.
Anyway who gives a shit what a white guy thinks about all this, here is a pretty even-handed article from the Indian Country Today Media Network which details the Depp controversy. Some activists are questioning Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage and asking him to verify it (SHOW ME YOUR PAPERS, BOY!), while obviously Disney defers to their consultants for the movie, who defend their work. And if you’re interested I actually recommend reading the comments, which leaned heavily pro-Depp when I read them, but they bring up alot of interesting points on all sides of the issue.
I’m sure I’ll have to keep arguing all that shit over and over again, but what I really wish I could convince people about is not just the movie’s intent, but its actual achievement. I say it’s a fun, beautifully shot adventure with spectacular action sequences and just the right balance of clever, funny, weird and too-“politically-correct”-for-Brit-Hume. I’m not sure what you fellas were looking for in a LONE RANGER movie – or what I was looking for, for that matter. But I’m glad we got this instead.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.