The Lone Ranger shares the same faults as other, recent summer blockbusters – it’s overly plotted and far too long – yet in one awful way the movie is quite unique. Veering wildly from clowning to cannibalism, joking to genocide, this is a baffling, ghoulish viewing experience. It’s like whistling past a pop-culture graveyard.
Certainly Tonto, the Native-American sidekick to the title hero, is an entertainment fixture that should have been left dead and buried. From the broken English of the original, 1930s radio show to the various, minstrelsy television incarnations, Tonto has always been an, um, problematic figure. OK, let’s just call him racist. For this update, director Gore Verbinski and his team of screenwriters seem to think there’s an easy solution to this: cast Johnny Depp!
I’m afraid that doesn’t quite do it. Instead of a noble savage, Depp gives us a comic savage – Willy Wonka with a dead bird on his head. Even if Tonto is frequently portrayed as being wilier and wittier than the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer, who was far funnier in The Social Network), the performance is still problematic. (OK, it’s racist.)
The Lone Ranger is like whistling past a pop-culture graveyard.
Perhaps in an attempt to “update” Tonto, the filmmakers decided to place this fantasy jester within cruel history. The overarching plot involves an illegal plan to run a train line through Comanche territory, thereby violating a peace treaty. And so we get scenes of actual Comanche warriors (none wearing the whiteface of Depp) in futile battle against U.S. Army soldiers. Similarly, a flashback to Tonto’s youth recounts the massacre of his village at the hands of white miners. All of this horror is then callously juxtaposed with sudden humor, most of it involving Tonto. During one sequence, there are only a couple of quick edits between a comic quip and the sight of Native Americans being mowed down by Gatling guns. It’s like having Johnny Depp do a jig at Little Bighorn National Monument and calling it entertainment.
The Lone Ranger is a mess in many other ways – sometimes literally, as when we have to watch villain Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) eat a victim’s heart out. (How is it that Disney’s The Lone Ranger is far gorier – yet less frightening – than last month’s zombie thriller, World War Z?) Another miscalculation is to play the William Tell overture over the final, interminable action sequence. True, the music has long been associated with the Lone Ranger character, but its pacing and rhythms are a complete mismatch for the wanton chaos on the screen. The variety of dissonance this one film attains is extraordinary.