To be quite honest, I had NO positive vibes about Disney’s second reboot of an old franchise in the last year (I still can’t finish the train wreck that was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter). Does anyone see the problem with painting Johnny Depp in “brown face” and throwing him out there as the oldest Native American symbol of power, friendship, and justice? How about Armie Hammer, who has no charisma whatsoever playing one of the longest-running American heroes of the last century? And how could Gore Verbinski’s take on a classic after the make-up laden rampage that was the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise?
Apparently unlike most of America, I found myself entertained from the get-go. As the prerequisite ambush went down on screen with Butch Cavendish’s (William Fichtner) gang gunning down John Reid (Hammer) with a squad of Texas Rangers, I found myself thinking that Verbinski had taken the same scene from the television show and from Christopher Lloyd’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and still made it even more intriguing. And I have to credit Tonto (Depp) for that, and the storytelling layers that Verbinski lays down on the film, even as we question how much trust we can place in the Ranger’s mentor/friend/sidekick/adversary. There’s a humanity here, mixed in with the humor, that somehow makes it less cheesy than you’d expect.
Don’t get me wrong: Depp and Hammer ham it up a couple of times, reducing the audience I saw it to near tears. Tonto clearly doubts the Ranger’s ability/heroic potential (wishing that Reid’s dead brother would’ve been chosen by the “spirit horse,” Silver), and his eye-rolling sarcasm is legitimate. But Hammer’s Ranger is no dummy, and he gets his shots in, too. That humor isn’t the “mainstay” you might’ve expected given the Verbinski/Depp connections in Pirates of the Caribbean, but it stirs the drink of the otherwise action-packed, explosive movie.
The Lone Ranger has more of a Wild, Wild West (the Will Smith version) or Silverado (Kevin Costner!) feel to it than something along the lines of Justified or Hell on Wheels, but there’s grittiness here, too. It extends past the death of the Ranger’s brother, thanks to the cannibalistic nature of Fichtner’s Cavendish, and the violence that comes down on Reid’s widow and her son. And while a made-up Depp originally seemed an ironic choice for Tonto, the film pulls no punches in its singling out of various Caucasian-on-Native American crime, in terms of butchered villages, cheap trades of trinkets for land, and racist tendencies. The encroaching railroad may be considered “progress,” but the overall vibe of human nature here shows that the people are anything but progressive.
Still, the movie is largely a popcorn-munching ride of epic proportions. If you liked the Zack Snyder take on Man of Steel then you’ll probably dig the pounding action that only twice allows for the “William Tell Overture” to soar. Hammer’s Ranger still won’t kill, but his pursuit of justice occurs in a hail of bullets, punches, and explosions. It’s not all CGI but this is definitely the case of CGI adding to the overall delivery rather than taking away. It does play a little long, but my attention span might’ve been negatively impacted by the twelve previews I sat through before the feature rolled!
So what’s my takeaway? Most of it revolves around Tonto, whose backstory drives the way we receive the story, interpret the story, and consider both of our main characters. There’s plenty to be considered about Tonto as a narrator and a mentor, but even more importantly, we’re forced to examine Tonto’s motivations, and whether his pronation toward violence is more legitimate than the Ranger’s non-lethal approach or not. That’s a question that the movie asks, but how we interpret it will probably depend on what we already think. Is the Ranger “soft” or naive? Is Tonto violent or angry? Are they each justified, as countermeasures to each other?
The Lone Ranger is a study in methods of justice. It asks what’s a “just war,” in evaluating the railroad, the Union army, the Comanches, Tonto, and the Ranger. And it forces us to consider whether or not “an eye for an eye” is legitimate in that age and in our time, or if we’re simply fooling ourselves to consider whether or not there is another way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Disney is giving the film a sequel, so fans of the film may want to soak it all in while they still can.