Walt Disney Studios has been slipping with live-action features. The studio has had its share of critical duds but its films have typically been able to come through financially. Big budgets, a luxury for many films, were a matter of course for the Mouse House, but a more discerning public, due to the proliferation of the internet and an increased accessibility to films post-release, has hit Disney squarely in its pocketbook. The Lone Ranger, which had its share of delays, was in production at the same time as John Carter and Oz the Great and Powerful, all with budgets over $200M. Oz did just fine but John Carter was an utter failure, missing the mark with critics and audiences, delivering a major financial loss to the studio. Regardless of how well The Lone Ranger does this weekend, adequate marketing and the mere presence of Johnny Depp should give the studio the win it needs; it continues a recent trend of non-Marvel, non-animated Disney releases being fairly lackluster.
Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) is a notorious killer set for execution; however his gang has other plans. Following Cavendish’s escape from the train bound for his hanging, Texas Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) rides out into the desert flanked by his troop of lawmen and newly deputized brother John (Armie Hammer) to capture Cavendish and his band of outlaws. In their search, they wander into a trap and a gunfight they cannot win. With the Rangers gunned down, only John remains. With a bunch of help from Tonto (Johnny Depp), a wandering Native-American with an odd bent, John recreates himself as a masked purveyor of justice in hopes of finishing what his brother started.
For fans of the Lone Ranger, be it the old television show or the radio serial (seriously, are there any fans of the radio version here), this film will leave you a bit disgruntled. On the surface it appears to have everything that you could want, the mask, the man, Silver, Tonto, even the original villain in Butch Cavendish; nevertheless it’s a ruse. The film may be called The Lone Ranger but Tonto is a more fitting title. All of the references to the Lone Ranger play as little more than lip service to the old fans that I imagine will go unappreciated. John Reid is a lawyer and a cowardly one at that. He wants no part in the action that follows and looks for an out at every junction. I tried to view the film as Reid’s growth into the man of legend, but he doesn’t do all that much growing. There is a quick shift at a certain point onto a more heroic slant, but he is plagued by ineptitude and indecisiveness. It is only Tonto’s mission that keeps the film on the necessary tracks. It is as if Johnny Depp decided he wanted to play a comedic Native-American and the studio dusted off their Lone Ranger rights to appease him. I don’t have a problem with increasing the importance of Tonto, but the changes to the Lone Ranger property as a whole are so gross that they come off as disrespectful to the source.
If you can look past the changes to Lone Ranger canon, it is impossible to ignore the poor attempt at story on display. Often the story continues forward only because the existence of the film requires it to do so. With convenience as their watchword, many characters make choices that make little sense if not for a need to get from A to B. John Reid is made a deputy Ranger seemingly because he had to have the title for the film’s name to make sense (if there was another reason it did not make enough of an impression for me to remember). In addition, numerous characters and storylines are introduced and quickly abandoned seemingly at random. The tone skips along as it ineffectually lights upon comedy and drama without fully committing to either. The structure of the story is a haphazardly assembled foundation that immediately cripples the film and is a strong contributor to its ultimate failure.
The film isn’t an entire waste of time. Hans Zimmer’s score is captivating and lends an implied greatness to many scenes that do not deserve it. He evokes classic western atmosphere in his ability to mix the iconic Lone Ranger themes with his own composition. In addition, Gore Verbinski continues to show that he can at least position the camera properly to capture large and intriguing set pieces. The final train chase is a decidedly fun watch and although it feels strangely larger than the film it resides in, is visually delightful and exciting. The western landscape is shot with a beautiful familiarity that shows a welcomed appreciation for the genre and the makeup is impressive in its ability to render many actors nearly unrecognizable in service to their characters. Nevertheless, at an overlong 149 minutes, the opulent action sequences and Zimmer’s skillful score are lost in a sea of lazy storytelling from which the film cannot be saved.
Disney loves them some franchises, but occasionally that positioning seems to get in the way of making worthwhile films. The Lone Ranger feels like a set up for an eventual sequel and a plethora of amusement park attractions rather than a complete film. The story is painfully thrown together without little care for coherency. Characters make unfounded decisions to allow the film to get to its next action sequence. Sure, the sequences are nice to watch, but they feel irrelevant to the story as a whole. It never is sure enough of itself to commit to any specific tone, instead dipping its toe in several and feeling hollow as a result. Tonto is highlighted for no other reason than to be different and allow Johnny Depp to be the star. Any devoted Lone Ranger fan would be advised to steer clear or expect to feel high levels of disgust with the way your beloved character has been treated. The Lone Ranger presents a poorly constructed and unengaging story with little charm and the fanfare of a much better film.
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