In yet another Hollywood story of cobblers versus creators, The Lone Ranger gallops out of Tinseltown as a muddled mess on the fast track to the glue factory. To paraphrase Johnny Depp’s Tonto, “There is something seriously wrong with this horse.”
The problem is typical of big-budget Hollywood films: desperate to protect their investment, studios impose elements from previous successful films on the auteurs’ creation in an effort to be all things to all people and thereby maximize profits. The result is a communally engineered potluck patchwork that appeals to no demographic.
Written by the creators of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger tries hard to be several movies at the same time, most notably a funny Disney Pirates-type romp and a hardcore, realistic Western like TV’s “Deadwood.” Either choice could have worked successfully, but trying to suture parts of both into one beast only creates a monster no one can love.
Armie Hammer tackles the title role of a clutzy, naïve dork who is neither heroic nor especially sympathetic. The Lone Ranger serves primarily as a comic foil to Depp’s Tonto. Hammer plays a Brendan Fraser-esque Dudley Do-Right in the Wild West to Depp’s Native American Jack Sparrow with a Jack Skellington makeup job. That premise is absurd but highly workable: The Pirates of the Caribbean on horses. If rendered as a true Disney G-rated action comedy, the film probably would have enjoyed the success that Pirates did.
However, the recent popularity of hardcore Westerns on TV likely inspired some studio executive to send the producers a PowerPoint urging them to incorporate all of those successful R-rated elements as well. The result is a movie that is half cartoon, half bloodbath—a sort of Dudley Do-Right meets The Wild Bunch. In the theater I attended, a young boy in the audience screamed and cried twice during the film at especially graphic scenes. His family surely went home wondering what in the Haley Mills kind of Disney movie this was. The next thing you know, Kurt Russell will be playing a serial killer in a Robert Rodriguez grindhouse flick.
The insanity does not end there, unfortunately. In a recent television interview, Johnny Depp stated he wanted to play the Indian Tonto to redeem Native Americans’ reputations because they had so long and so often been depicted as murderous thieves, liars and drunks. So Johnny crafted his Tonto instead as a murderous thief, liar and drunk who is also horrifically naïve and schizophrenic (because in France, where he lives, those are redeeming qualities?). HAnd he added, straight-faced, that he consulted the Comanche tribe beforehand and secured its approval and blessing for the portrayal he created. Maybe ever since The Searchers, Comanches feel any depiction is an improvement over that of kidnapping rapists of a juvenile Natalie Wood.
In truth, Tonto does rise to heroics and goodness when the situation finally demands it at the end, but Jay Silverheels is probably turning over in his scaffold.
This is not to say such a characterization could not be successful and commanding. In a pure, hardcore Western, Tonto’s story would have made a deep, textured character study that indeed could have captured the reality and complexity of Native Americans during America’s wild frontier era. However, that would be a different movie from this confused amalgam, although hints of that caliber of film shine through in the opening. Ironically, the Texas Rangers whose deaths birthed The Lone Ranger are actually the most interesting characters in the movie. Unfortunately, as with the film’s early promise, they are immediately exterminated.