‘The Lone Ranger’: Put a bullet in its head

July 1, 2013

lone ranger

Because I’m spending this week attending and covering the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, I gave myself permission not to review any of the films that are opening this week.

Then I saw “The Lone Ranger” because I had to write a review for my weekly outlet. And it was so pointlessly awful that I wrote a review before I left. Because, as a mentor of mine once said, there’s no point in patting idiots on the head.

Everything you need to know about this movie can be found in four little words: “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Everything that was wrong with that series of films (and that includes the first one, the only watchable movie in the bunch) is amplified in “Lone Ranger.” Combine the visual excess of director Gore Verbinski with producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s addiction to spectacle and Johnny Depp’s mugging and, well, you can do the math.

The script is credited to Justin Haythe (who wrote the criminally underrated “Revolutionary Road”) but also to Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott – again, the “Pirates” brain trust. It’s a mish-mash of too-hip one-liners, cowboy-and-Indian clichés and a plot that would have barely powered a half-hour episode of the beloved TV series from the 1950s. There are no surprises in it, only plot twists that announce themselves far in advance.

The story, such as it is: John Reid (Armie Hammer), just out of an Eastern law school, is headed back to the small town in Texas he calls home, to be the district attorney in 1869. But he’s on the same train as the vicious criminal Butch Cavendish, who is headed for the same town to be hung. Chained up next to him: a Comanche warrior named Tonto, played with crusty face paint by Johnny Depp, who proves that it’s possible to overact without ever changing your expression.

(Depp actually is part of a framing story that brackets the film. Like Jack Crabb in “Little Big Man,” Depp’s Tonto is first seen as the elderly Tonto, under piles of prosthetic makeup.)

Unsurprisingly, Butch escapes and John joins his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) in a posse to chase him down. John, of course, is a tenderfoot – but he’s the only one to emerge alive when Butch and his gang ambush the group of Texas Rangers and kill them all.

Left for dead, John is rescued by Tonto and adopted by a white stallion that Tonto believes is a Spirit Horse – which makes Reed a Spirit Warrior. So Tonto cuts him a mask from his dead brother’s leather vest and they set off to foil the bad guys.

There’s a larger plot afoot, involving obvious bad guy Tom Wilkinson (a wonderful actor who deserves every penny he pocketed for suffering through this dross) and the economic politics of the railroad. Along the way, Verbinski makes nods to Gen. Custer and Wounded Knee, as well as a half-dozen older and far better westerns.

But the writing is obvious and modern: jokey without ever being funny, busy without ever being involving, large and splashy without reaching any level of either excitement or thrills. Verbinski destroys railroad trains in massive action sequences that bookend the film and somehow cannot make either sequence seem like more than what it is: an intricately choreographed and preposterous movie-action setpiece that defies all laws of physics.

How deeply stupid is this film? Let’s start with the fact that Silver, a white stallion, is played by a mare. And then let’s talk about geography.

John Reid and his brother Dan are Texas Rangers. In Texas. Because it’s called “The Lone Ranger” – get it? Yet, somehow, the story of the film centers on the completion of the transcontinental railroad – which happened in Utah.

The film’s press kit makes a special point of noting how authentic the costumes were constructed to be (No zippers!). But somehow they had no problem taking a seminal moment in American history and relocating it by almost a thousand miles.

Which explains why most of the film’s best scenery is supplied by Monument Valley, made famous in the films of John Ford. Monument Valley is, of course, also in Utah. Everything apparently is in Utah – except this movie, which is in denial.

This is not a movie about characters or story; it’s about action beats and shtick. Depp’s shtick is that he wears a dead crow as a headdress and, on a regular basis, tries to feed it birdseed. Though we eventually get the sentimentalized rationale for his behavior, it’s no excuse for this kind of self-indulgent camera-hogging. I can’t imagine Native Americans not being offended.

Hammer, meanwhile, has been written and directed to act like a witless priss, a goody-good who suddenly grows a pair and instantly develops the riding and shooting skills of a seasoned frontiersman. For good measure, there’s Helena Bonham Carter who shows that, when allowed, she can actually be subtle onscreen; perhaps she knew she was no competition for the attention-getting tics of Depp.

Everyone else acts with their wigs and beards. As he did in the “Pirates” films, Verbinski insists on making his characters look as grubby and bizarre as possible. The plethora of hair appliance look, at times, like unkempt shrubbery affixed to the heads of most of the male Caucasian characters.

Sadly, at this point in time, Jerry Bruckheimer is Hollywood’s most successful hack, with his fingers in too many pies for his influence to be denied in dumbing down the culture. Yes, once in a great while, he produces something of actual quality, but even a blind pig comes across the occasional acorn.

“The Lone Ranger” isn’t just a bad western – it’s a bad movie. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s not in 3D. The problem is that it’s barely one-dimensional.

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