The Lone Ranger is one of the oddest summer blockbusters in a long time. It’s old-fashioned, yet modern. It’s wacky and lighthearted but also has to be the most violent Disney movie ever made. And for a movie called The Lone Ranger, the real star of the movie is the Native American ‘sidekick’ Tonto, as played by Johnny Depp. The movie should probably be called Tonto. When was the last time the top-billed actor didn’t play the character in the title role? There’s a whole lot going on in this movie and it never really settles on a consistent tone. At the same time, it’s absurdly entertaining. Even if The Lone Ranger is somewhat of a mess, in a way that only adds to the enjoyment of it.
The film takes the Never Ending Story/Princess Bride approach to storytelling with a young boy in present time (the present here being 1933) being told tale of the adventures of The Lone Ranger and Tonto. A geriatric Tonto narrates for young Will (Mason Elston Cook), a Lone Ranger enthusiast, how lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) became the legend of justice. Like all good stories, you get the idea that Tonto may be embellishing things a bit, or flat out confusing details due to his old age. At one point, a bag of peanuts which the boy is eating in present time makes its way into the legend of yore, hinting that Tonto may be muddling the past and present.
As it goes, John Reid, a law student and aspiring Texas Ranger, lives in the shadow of his heroic older brother Dan (James Badge Dale). When Dan and his team of Rangers are wiped out by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and his posse of ruthless outlaws, John is left alone to seek justice, thus becoming The Lone Ranger. Dan’s widowed wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and her young son Danny (Bryant Prince) are kidnapped by Butch and the boys, paving the way for Reid to come to their rescue. Meanwhile, millionaire business tycoon Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is planning a massive construction of a railroad across America which would lay waste and ravage through Indian Reservations. This does not make Tonto very happy. The Lone Ranger and Tonto team up to defeat the respective bad guys from carrying out their devious plans.
Johnny Depp has played more quirky roles than any other movie star in history. You could fill up a giant Halloween bash with the partygoers dressed as his characters. While Tonto doesn’t have the exuberance of Jack Sparrow, there’s a reserved but similar way about him and he could be Jack’s Cherokee cousin. Depp’s Tonto is almost like Bugs Bunny at times, especially in the wild train sequences where he briskly makes his way under and around the locomotive, very much in the manner of a cartoon character. It should be mentioned though that amongst these cartoonish hijinks, the same scene features a tribe of Indians being slaughtered by machine gun fire. This is one of the more glaringly disconcerting examples of the aforementioned tonal inconsistencies. The film jumps from buddy-comedy antics between the mismatched and bickering Lone Ranger and Tonto, to scenes of violent sadism at the hands of the menacing Butch Cavendish. I must admit, while it felt odd, I didn’t have such a problem with the shifts in tone. A movie should probably decide what it wants to be and stick with it, but again, there’s something about the messiness of this movie that I found endearing.
Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger is a more bumbling, borderline idiotic hero than you might expect from a summer blockbuster. This isn’t the brooding Bruce Wayne or the stoic Clark Kent. John Reid is kind of an unappreciated screwup, that is until he must put on the mask and save the day. Throughout their journey, Tonto plays mischievous tricks on him whilst ‘teaching’ John about Indian culture. Tonto steals a drink from John and tells him that it’s an Indian gesture of respect to taste another man’s drink. When John later steals a drink from the Indian Chief it does not go over too well. Armie Hammer (an heir to the Arm & Hammer baking soda empire) is energetic in his role. But this is Depp’s show, and the majority of people buying a ticket to see The Lone Ranger are most likely going for Tonto.
The biggest flaw with the film is its bloated running time which causes it to noticeably drag in many spots throughout the second act. At 149 minutes, the filmmakers are obviously going for an epic scale ‘bigger is better’ approach, but it’s wholly unnecessary. Part of the problem is the need to add an origin story to Tonto with flashbacks and fellow tribe members explaining how Tonto came to be who he is. When we first meet Tonto we just assume that all members of the tribe act in his outlandish manner. When we meet the more levelheaded members, it becomes apparent that Tonto is somewhat mentally unstable. There’s a whole lot going on plot-wise as scenes interchange between The Lone Ranger and Tonto getting involved in various capers, Butch and the gang up to no good, Cole and other business magnates discussing railroad manufacturing plans; then there’s a subplot involving the madame of a brothel (Helena Bonham Carter) who dons a fake leg that moonlights as a pistol, and serves to further the exploits of our heroes via plot information. While the film mostly held my interest throughout, bringing the film down to a more manageable 2 hour length would do wonders for its palpable lack in pacing.
What the film will best be remembered for is featuring two of the most spectacular runaway train extravaganzas ever filmed. The opening twenty minutes sees our protagonists chained together as they must navigate their way atop a train and outrun armed outlaws. The final twenty minute battle is arguably the best action sequence of any movie this summer. It’s a seamless hybrid of CGI and practical effects featuring incredibly inventive stunt work, all perfectly set to the William Tell Overture (the theme song to the radio and TV adaptations of The Lone Ranger). The sheer amount of movie marvel going on throughout the different cars of the train as all of the heroes and villains reach their climax of the story is outstanding. The Lone Ranger rides a white stallion across the roof of the speeding train and that only scratches the surface of the craziness that occurs.
Director Gore Verbinski shows a real skill in handling this over-the-top production and perhaps the reason those train sequences are so much fun is that it’s always clear what’s happening and the action never becomes jumbled. Verbinski also helmed The Pirates of the Caribbean series, and The Lone Ranger has a lot more in common with the first Pirates movie than it does the irritating sequels. This isn’t a well disciplined movie and if someone else hated I would totally get it. However, if you don’t always need a neat plate of symmetrically placed food and can enjoy a sloppy joe from time to time, take a bite out of The Lone Ranger.