Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Saddle Sore

You know that thing that seems like a really bad idea? Somebody's going through with something, and for the energy and attention and hype they are devoting to that project, you can't for the life of you understand why? That's pretty much my case with Disney's epic western, The Lone Ranger. All the elements for failure are here. With very few exceptions, nobody WATCHES westerns anymore. On top of that, the budget for this particular piece is so bloated ($215 million, not counting advertising) that it would have to be the highest grossing western ever JUST to be considered a success. Plus, Disney's attempts to push into the action-adventure genre in recent years have fallen flat creatively, and for every financially successful dip into the nostalgia pool (Oz the Great and Powerful) there have been far too many pricey belly flops (Prince of Persia, John Carter and the last Pirates flick, for example). Finally, there's a bunch of negative attention out there focused on the casting of Johnny Depp as Comanche sidekick Tonto, which essentially has the top-billed star performing the Native American variant of blackface. Can The Lone Ranger overcome all these issues by simply issuing the statement that it was from the same team that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean (director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Depp)?

The short answer is no, it cannot.
Surrender is not an option.
Based on the character from the popular TV show and radio serials that first appeared way back in the 1930's, The Lone Ranger tells the origin of the man once known as John Reid (Armie Hammer), who returns home from college to Colby, Texas to become the new District Attorney. Unknowingly, he is aboard the same train as outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), soon about to hang for his crimes against the Indian natives. But when Cavendish's gang breaks him out, kills several Texas Rangers (John's brother included) and leaves the young lawyer for dead, John must team up with eccentric Comanche Tonto (Depp) to avenge his family and bring law back to the untamed West as the masked outlaw known as The Lone Ranger
Hope you like him... he gets old fast.
Right from the start, we're assaulted with idiotic imagery, as the opening scene takes place in a San Francisco museum in the 1930's, where a young fan of the Lone Ranger meets an aged and demented Tonto (Depp in heavy makeup). There, Tonto begins to narrate the entire tale, a plot device so contrived and ill-conceived that I can't believe it made the final cut. Why not just go right into the story and action? Do we NEED to see that no matter what, the legend of the Ranger has endured? Isn't what you're about to show us going to do that? It's a lousy way to begin this whole experience, as I don't ever remember Pirates needing to remind us that the entire plot was written around a theme park ride.
The railroad: our first major environmental devastator.
This is just the beginning of Lone Ranger's problems, as that opening (and subsequent occasional story-breaking subplot) sets the tone for a movie that can't figure out what it wants to be. On one hand, it's light-hearted action-adventure, with classic cowboy gun play, colorful bad guys and even a bit of witty dialogue. On the other, it tries way too hard to overcome its lighter fare and attempts to show some authentic culture of the time. This includes a scene in which one of the bad guys (in this case, Barry Pepper's military officer) leads an army in the slaughter of an invading Comanche tribe. With bodies clogging up a river, it's a powerfully sad reminder of the atrocities committed in the name of "progress." And then, not twenty seconds later, Tonto tells a one-liner about a horse. It's this unevenness in theme and plot even within the confines of a single scene that mars much of the fun that could have been had with this western tale.
HBC with a gun leg? Are you sure Tim Burton didn't direct this bit?
And that's sad, because the film really does have its moments. Despite any niggling concerns about the quality of the production, this is a veteran team who have committed great acts of filmmaking in the past. This was especially true for the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and there are times during Ranger where you remember why you liked that swashbuckling adventure so much. The action is better than you might expect, culminating in an insanely epic - and surprisingly fun - battle atop, under and through racing train cars, set to an updated (but still classic-sounding) variant of Rossini's 'William Tell Overture.' Though the special effects are not always as sharp as they could be, at least they don't possess the cartoonish quality of a George Lucas adventure. It's easily some of Verbinski's best action work, and never feels overlong (which you couldn't say about any of Pirates' battles). There are also a slew of talented actors and interesting characters, though for the life of me I'm not sure how I feel about Ruth Wilson's mediocre performance. On the more positive side, Armie Hammer is as pleasant a lead as you can get. I wish he'd pick better projects (his last two were the terrible Mirror Mirror and the meh J. Edgar), but at least you can't say anything negative about his efforts or talent. He's supported by a bevy of charismatic villains in Fichtner, Pepper, and Tom Wilkinson as a corrupt business magnate (in Hollywood, is there any other kind?), who are a triple threat to the forces of justice. However, I wish we could have seen a bit more of Helena Bonham Carter's peg-legged (and bad-ass) brothel madam Red Harrington, who charms in a few scenes but is missing for almost the entirety of the movie. James Badge Dale meanwhile rounds out the cast (and is enjoying a pretty good career run presently) as John's brother.
Let's just get this trope out of the way.
But the film boasts two big stars. One is featured on the poster above; the other is not. One was in Pirates of the Caribbean; the other was not. One has a few moments of levity but is otherwise remarkable; the other is a horse who absolutely steals the show. Johnny Depp fails to attain the same level of entertainment he managed as Captain Jack Sparrow, which I wouldn't even bother mentioning if it weren't obvious they were trying to emulate the exact same process by making Tonto a wise-cracking, deranged and occasionally dangerous individual who is supposed to steal scenes and chew scenery. However, he doesn't do any of those things, despite wearing a dead bird on his head and wearing more makeup than KISS. His too-frequent motions to "feed" the bird get old after the first few minutes, and his monotonously-delivered dialogue doesn't show the same charisma we've come to expect from the actor. And his Native American routine (which I'm sure was meant to be endearing and honorable) never feels fully developed, as though he and the filmmakers never really took the time to nail down his characteristics. While it's certainly not as insulting as it could have been (especially when there are a few Native American actors in here that are great), there's no doubt that Depp was the wrong man for the job (seriously, the kid who plays his younger self has darker skin), brought in as box office padding and nothing more.
Guess who's better?
No, the star of The Lone Ranger turns out to be none other than Silver, the albino horse who can often be seen hanging out in trees or silently arguing with his human counterparts. Stories from the set overtly praise the abilities of Silver, and his on-screen antics certainly seem to prove these tales accurate. However, he doesn't stand out in all that many scenes, and even then as a comedic foil to the Ranger and even to Tonto's more lucid moments. Still, it's a sad day in the industry when a horse not only outperforms his human hosts, but does so with relative ease.
"I am the Law."
Sadly, despite a few glimmers of genuinely strong filmmaking, The Lone Ranger is everything you might have feared: it's a pretty, over-bloated, uneven, SFX-dependent, mediocre, and slightly racist epic that never deserves the attention that it attempts to demand. It's understandable why the marketing department for this film focused so hard on the "from the people who brought you Pirates" plan, as I'm sure the remaining fans of that franchise represented a significant percentage of those who actually showed up opening weekend. But Lone Ranger is no Curse of the Black Pearl. Its desire to resurrect the western genre is admirable, but better movies have been made in recent years (including True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma) that had far less a budget than the one used by Bruckheimer and crew. If he and his fellow producers had perhaps lowered their ambitions somewhat and put together a smaller, low-tech production with the crew and cast that they had, The Lone Ranger might have been a winner. As it is, it's just a mess we'll they'll be spending the next couple of weeks cleaning up.

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