The Lone Ranger
Rated: PG-13 :: Released: 03 July 2013
Director: Gore Verbinski :: Starring: Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer
By Dan Toland
12 July 2013 — It's a little bit before 10:00 PM on Saturday as I sit down to write this, and I have just gotten out of the evening showing of The Lone Ranger. I wasn't going to go. However, it reached 100 degrees in the city today, I needed to go someplace with air conditioning, and this was the only movie that still had a seat (seriously, a seat) this close to showtime.
The Lone Ranger has been in theaters for scarcely three days, and already it is shaping up to be an enormous box-office bomb. It cost a reported $250 million to make, and, as of today, has apparently taken in roughly 10% of that. John Carter didn't flop that hard.
We can question the wisdom of spending more money than The Avengers, more money than The Dark Knight, more money than goddamn Avatar. All this money on a property that hasn't been consistently popular since the mid 1950s, on a genre (RE: Westerns) that hasn't been a box-office draw on its own for almost as long.
Seriously, Disney, what the hell?
When I heard that a big-budget Lone Ranger movie was in production, I was pretty excited. Readers of this site will know that I have long had an affinity for pulp characters, and The Lone Ranger is one of the most iconic. Furthermore, I love me a good Western. Since they get made less frequently as the years go by, the few that manage to make it to fruition are generally plenty entertaining as far as I'm concerned. Cowboys? Check. Horses? Check. Gunfights? Check and check. This was a slam dunk. Here you go, Disney. Here's my $12. I'll be there.
Then the marketing started. That first image. Oh, man, that first image. Remember that? Remember the day the Internet rose up as one to ask, "What the hell did Johnny Depp put on his head?" This was the same studio that bungled the living Christ out of selling John Carter — a tremendously entertaining, if flawed movie made with love and reverence by a lifelong fan which was much better than the numbers reflected — and it was looking like they were at it again. The two trailers that were released to the Internet were nothing to write home about either, and I have not personally seen a single commercial for it on television. A quarter billion dollars spent making this thing, and they are apparently entirely uninterested in getting anyone to go see it. And with all that, they managed to talk me out of seeing a movie that I should have been willing to camp out for.
Of course, the heat wave currently enveloping the Northeast had other plans for me. I saw this about as reluctantly as I could, and the reviews have ranged from lukewarm to hostile. So what did I think of this movie that drove me to write a review as soon as I walked in the door?
I fucking couldn't stop smiling the entire time.
By no stretch of the imagination is this a great film. This is a big, dumb, stupid, loud, brainless confection of a movie that goes on at least 30 minutes longer than it has any right to, and I will undoubtedly forget most of it in an hour or two. It's entirely manufactured and you can see the seams. I have heard many people call it Pirates of the Caribbean Five and that is not entirely unwarranted. The director, Gore Verbinski, has taken largely the same formula that worked incredibly well for his first Pirates film (and much less well for the other three) and stapled it onto a Western: somewhat familiar setting, characters you kind of remember from somewhere, talented actors shamelessly hamming it up as the bad guys, and a complete and utter inability (or unwillingness) to say no to Johnny Depp.
And it's a mess.
Yet I — and I recognize that your mileage may vary — found it to be a gloriously entertaining mess. Depp really does seem to be having a good time, and his choices make a bizarre kind of sense most of the time. Armie Hammer (who, if you remember, was cast as the Batman for the Justice League movie that thankfully never happened five or six years ago) has a facility for comedy I've never seen him have before (more on that in a bit) and plays the role of The Ranger pretty well. And if you're making a Western, and you say to your casting director, "I need some ideas for who to play the main villain," and the first words out of her mouth aren't "William Fichtner" you need a new casting director.
However, there are real, serious, glaring problems. If Mike doesn't mind, I'd like to include this quote from the forums: "To quote my mother-in-law (who saw it because she grew-up on The Lone Ranger): 'Mike, I hated it. Hated. It. It absolutely missed the point of The Lone Ranger.'"
She is completely right. If I had grown up a fan of The Lone Ranger (specifically the Clayton Moore TV show from the 1950s), this movie would undoubtedly have made me white with rage. To back up a bit; this movie has a real problem with tonal consistency. The TV show was incredibly cornball. Like, seriously cornball. To the movie's credit, that's how Hammer plays John Reid here: he's a college-educated attorney who is completely out of his depth in the West (despite having grown up there), and who is entirely unable to really get his brain around the situations in which he finds himself. As a result, he's very proper, speaks clearly and in an educated manner, doesn't want to carry a gun, and will do anything in his power to avoid killing. However, the movie has a hard time deciding if its hero is to be admired or mocked for this. It's one thing for the other characters to verbally abuse The Ranger, but when the movie itself is doing it, that's a problem. Things go from gently ribbing The Ranger for his prissiness and insistence on decorum and following the rules, to setting him up as an object of ridicule to the audience. And that's a problem. Not just for fans of the character, but just as a movie on its own terms. Either we laugh at the character, or we laugh with him. You can't have it both ways.
I will say that Reid's code — that he will not kill if there's any conceivable way to avoid it, and that everyone, even the murderer of his brother, should live to stand trial — is refreshing. In 2013, you just don't see that. A character who starts out that way invariably sees the error of his ways by the end, and shoots the bad guy in the face before the credits roll. However, while I really admire that The Ranger holds to this admittedly old-fashioned way of dealing with his enemies, the writers jump through hoops to make sure that everyone bad dies anyway. Which, again, goes back to the whole "having it both ways" thing. It's lazy writing. If The Ranger doesn't want to kill people, then don't goddamn kill people.
I do have to wonder what Disney thought it was buying. I can see the wisdom in huge, lavish films based on popular properties. The Marvel buyout was fantastic business sense. However, making a hugely expensive movie about a pre-war radio show cowboy just beggars belief. The Lone Ranger is not going to come pre-sold to the audience at-large the way, say, Batman does, because the vast majority of its lifelong fans are old enough to collect Social Security. My father was born in 1946 and barely remembered the TV show. A property like this is valuable because of the strength of its characters and story, not because there's a huge audience waiting for it. You have to sell The Lone Ranger a lot more aggressively than Iron Man, and Disney sold Iron Man 3 pretty damned aggressively. I can't imagine what they were thinking here.
I will say that the end, which went on for far too long, was nevertheless legitimately exciting. It's been a long time since I went to an action movie and was truly entertained by the setpieces, and this absolutely came through. I would absolutely watch a sequel, but they generally don't make sequels to movies that lose 90% of their ridiculously overinflated budget.
And if the sight of The Lone Ranger charging on Silver, jumping from rooftop to rooftop before thundering across the cars of a moving train, all while the William Tell Overture is blaring, does nothing for you, then there is seriously something wrong with you.