The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski’s latest collaboration with Johnny Depp is a film with a long and complex history behind it. The character of the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) is based on Texas Ranger Captain John R. Hughes who has been an inspiration to writers as early as 1915. From then on, the Lone Ranger reappeared in a numerous eponymous series, including a long-running radio show (reaching an impressive number of 2,956 episodes), comic books and a very popular TV show. All the versions of the story involved the masked hero, and his Native American friend Tonto fighting for justice after our hero’s confrontation with violent outlaws. After, however, the last episode of the TV show aired in 1957 the character’s popularity waned. The 1981 film The Legend of the Lone Ranger is worth mentioning only because its unsuccessful premiere and negative reviews seem to foreshadow the cold reception of Verbinski’s new film.
In many interviews, Verbinski emphasises how happy he is to be able to bridge the gap between earlier audiences of The Lone Ranger and new generations. The film could have been a good introduction to classical Westerns, with its many references to, notably, Once Upon a Time in the West and Little Big Man, but this potential was hindered by the negative reviews. Also, the film attempts to be self-contained and to wink at the knowing audience simultaneously, but more often feels like a Wild West edition of Pirates of the Caribbean than a proud reinterpretation of a popular myth. It’s undoubtedly a loving tribute both to numerous series of The Lone Ranger and the Western genre but seems to have some problems portraying its characters and picking its tone. The film keeps the mask, the silver bullet, the white horse and the use of William Tell Overture in its finale, but makes some, at times, questionable choices regarding the main characters.
The Lone Ranger himself looks slightly out of place as an inept arm of the law. His honesty simply doesn’t fit the context of the violent town. As much as his studies of law and time spent in the city are emphasised to explain his alienation, they cannot mask the fact that he was raised in the corrupt city to which he returns. His refusal, or even the inability, to use a gun generates numerous problems for all the ‘good’ characters and makes it easy to cheer for Tonto’s (Johnny Depp) murderous violence. The uncomfortable fact is that whenever the Lone Ranger refuses to pull the trigger, the innocent die.
The original show’s hard-boiled Ranger roamed the Wild West at a time when ‘the best shot was the best man’. He refused to shoot to kill but knew very well how to handle a gun and disarm his opponents. Verbinski might have chosen Armie Hammer for his ‘classical bones’ and the quality of ‘out of time-ness’. Yet he didn’t give him a chance to shine as a classical, strong hero but lost him in slapstick and comedic inaptitude. When the Ranger finally shoots and does it well the action is not impressive but surprising and unjustified by the rest of the film.
Depp’s performance as Tonto, on the other hand, is purposefully muted. Verbinski seemed to have leant from the ‘mistake’ which made the first Pirates of the Carribean a hit, which was letting Johnny Depp take over the film. Here Depp leaves some space for the lead and creates what Verbinski describes as a ‘restrained and gracious’ performance. Depp’s character is undoubtedly richer and more charming than the original Tonto. He could easily be, and almost is, to this film what Jack Sparrow was to the first Pirates. The story is presented from his perspective and includes some nice touches. The things that make Tonto seem like a stereotypical Native American, such as his broken English and belief in spirits are, in reality, a result of trauma. They are also a serious cause for mockery in the eyes of the perfectly articulate and rational members of his tribe.
The idea to take an old, popular story, which includes characters cherished by its audience, a convoluted, long-running plot and make it a modern, self-sufficient two and a half hour long film is beyond ambitious. This shows in the amount of things the film tries to be. It’s a Western, a comedy, a nearly historical film critiquing greed and ‘progress’ (portrayed as exploitation and unification), and a legend interspersed with some supernatural elements. It’s both an adaptation of the Lone Ranger and Verbinski’s very own film. In the end it is, then, a mix of many different conventions, moods and tones. The beautiful landscapes, amazingly choreographed action sequences and a few great moments are impressive and fun, but don’t hold the film together. Verbinski seemed to have been aiming high but lost his balance in the process. The film is not all it could have been, but neither it, nor Verbinski, deserved all the harsh criticism they received. The initial reviews might have been off-putting but the film is still on the big screen and worthy of much more attention than it got.