Johnny Depp once made a western about a man who was in a sense a walking ghost, a man on a quest for his ultimate destiny, as guided by a loyal Native American companion. The year was 1995 and the film was Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN. It was a brilliant and unconventional film, one that probably wouldn’t appeal to the masses. Nevertheless, I found the film to be alternately thought-provoking, beautiful and funny.
That was when Johnny Depp made good movies.
Now, once again Johnny Depp has made a western about a man who is in a sense of walking ghost, a man on a quest for his ultimate destiny, as guided by a loyal Native American companion. The film this time is THE LONE RANGER, and there is no doubt that it is playing to a completely different audience than DEAD MAN. I am not suggesting that this new blockbuster should even be compared to Jim Jarmusch’s metaphysical western. However, it just goes to show how far Johnny Depp has fallen. He has made a film with essentially the same plot, or at least the same theme. And yet, the chasm in quality between these two films could hardly be greater.
Depp is one of our most versatile, charismatic and talented actors. And yet, his filmography over the past ten years shows him operating in a strange comfort zone, whereas he used to be the one who always took chances. He continues to work with Tim Burton, a person who used to challenge him as an actor. But recently, it has been all about acting quirky and quirkiness alone does not a character make. He managed to create an iconic character with Jack Sparrow, but has mined the same character for four films now, with a fifth on the way. Six, if you count THE LONE RANGER, since Depp’s version of Tonto bears quite a few similarities to his mentally unbalanced pirate.
THE LONE RANGER opens at a fair in San Francisco, circa 1933. A young boy, wearing a Lone Ranger costume is looking through a rather boring Wild West exhibit when the “Noble Savage” in the display starts talking to him.
This is Tonto, an old man now, but one who originally mistakes the boy for the Lone Ranger. When it becomes clear that he is mistaken, Tonto tells the “real” story of the Lone Ranger, the one the boy never knew. This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to rape and pillage, er “adapt” the original mythology to reflect their version of things.
In this version, the Lone Ranger is John Reid (Armie Hammer), a milquetoast lawyer making his way by train out to the Wild West for the first time. The same train carries the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), as well as Tonto. In this version Cavendish looks like he came straight out of THE HILLS HAVE EYES and even has a taste for human flesh to accentuate the point. As Cavendish’s men start killing the passengers, Reid tries to stop him from escaping but is instead captured himself, getting on the bad side of both Cavendish and Tonto, to whom he is briefly chained.
After getting free, he meets up with his brother, a Texas Ranger. John is deputized by his brother to join a posse and hunt down Cavendish. The group is ambushed and everyone is left for dead. Tonto, having escaped jail in a way the film never bothers to make clear, comes across the aftermath and begins looting the corpses. He discovers that John Reid is still alive and doesn’t want to save him but is swayed by the appearance of a spirit horse. He even tries to dissuade the spirit horse from sparing John, figuring that it’s the Ranger the horse means to save. But the horse is insistent and Tonto is the type of guy who listens to horses.
Tonto nurses Reid back to health and tells him that he is a spirit walker, one who cannot be killed in battle. He also says that since the world believes Reid is dead, it is best to wear a mask and lead people to think that he is a vengeful spirit.
What follows is just almost too painful to go through, but I’ll do it anyway.
For over two hours, we get to know John and Tonto. And there isn’t much to know. The film tries to give Tonto a haunting back story which would have worked in a better film. For the most part, Tonto is treated as a crazy person who nonetheless has a knack for getting out of sticky situations, not unlike Capt. Jack Sparrow. He gets plenty of one-liners and opportunities to break the fourth wall.
One could chalk Tonto up to being the comic relief of the pair, except the Lone Ranger himself is no better. It may be time to give up on Armie Hammer, at least when it comes to blockbusters. He’s no better here than he was in MIRROR MIRROR. Hammer’s Lone Ranger speaks in sometimes modern colloquialisms. His eyes dart around, he yells a lot an looks exasperated by what’s going on. This is because much of THE LONE RANGER involves the title character finding his balls and realizing that due to the corruption that exists within the establishment, sometimes one must act outside the law to see that justice is done. Nothing new there, except that for much of the film, the Lone Ranger is painted as someone who is at best painfully naïve and at worst dangerously stupid.
This character arc also means that the Lone Ranger doesn’t do anything truly heroic until the last half hour of the movie. This is where there is an enormous action set-piece set on speeding trains. By that time however, we have watched the Lone Ranger and Tonto bicker incessantly as if they were in the weirdest adaptation of THE ODD COUPLE ever. We have seen the simple threat of Butch Cavendish balloon into a story that involves no less than three main villains, conspiracies galore and a plot to take over the free world. We have seen Cavendish eat people as his men, and those he’s associated with, shoot down dozens if not hundreds of innocent people. We have seen a film that veers drastically between being a zany buddy picture and the type of dark, cynical action film Hollywood thinks people want. We’ve seen poorly written character after poorly written character squeezed into this obnoxious, bloated movie, just so it could justify a far too long 149 minute running time.
In other words, no matter how impressive this final action sequence was, it didn’t matter. By then, it was too late. I was beyond caring. I was exhausted and demoralized and just wanted to go home.
THE LONE RANGER has a nasty habit of not committing to any one thing. I will use the framing device in 1933 San Francisco as an example, because as a friend of mine pointed out, it has a few clever moments. For her part, she enjoyed the film and said it works if you look at it not as THE LONE RANGER but as an eccentric old man telling a legend, a “big fish story” about the Old West. This explains why the film has so many plot holes (and boy, does it) and why certain aspects of the story seem more at home in a tall tale. Likewise, there is at least one shot that shows Old Tonto is mixing certain things up so you can’t be sure about what in his story, if anything, is accurate.
I agree, this would have been an interesting road to take. But THE LONE RANGER is too sheepish to commit to this idea completely. It hints here and there but then seems to forget about it later. Just as it forgets about everything else – from the various villains (which includes the most offensive character from Bruckheimer’s CON AIR seemingly adapted for this film), to the wishy-washy romance, to the humor, to the drama, to the pathos, to the action, to anything. The film starts on one thing, then thinks twice about it, retreating back to something else, sometimes bringing it up every now and then as the film agonizingly teeters on.
But the worst thing that THE LONE RANGER does is pander to the cynics in the audience. Wanting to go in your own direction is your prerogative as an artist. But there isn’t one traditional aspect of the characters in this film that isn’t met with some snide remark, some underlying bit of mockery and an overall dismissive attitude. It’s bad enough that our heroes are treated as buffoons throughout. But THE LONE RANGER is the latest in a series of films that questions the very existence of heroes. As far as this film is concerned, heroes are not meant to be celebrated. They are meant to be ridiculed, mocked, dragged through the mud and have everything they stand for questioned. And if that is what Hollywood thinks of them, and of us, I no longer want any part of it.
This review also appeared at Film Geek Central.