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New Release Review - The Lone Ranger

The popular TV character hits the big screen.

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper


At a San Francisco fair in 1933, a young boy visits a historic exhibit where, from behind a glass case labelled "The Noble Savage", an aging and decrepit Tonto (Depp), a Comanche, recounts the tale of how he met John Reid (Hammer), the man who would become the legendary Lone Ranger.
Before I proceed, I have to mention the elephant in Monument Valley: the casting of Depp as Tonto. Unless I'm severely mistaken, this is 2013 and we live in an age in which minstrelism is, rightly, a huge taboo. How is it then that so little has been mentioned about how offensive Depp's casting is? I can only assume it's because Native Americans don't have a strong enough voice, or at least one Hollywood isn't worried about. If Depp were playing an African-American or an Asian-American, this would be the biggest entertainment industry scandal of 2013, if not the century.
If you know me, you'll be aware that I'm a huge fan of classic westerns, most of which routinely featured white actors playing Native Americans. The difference is, they were made in an era of ignorance, at a time when a black American couldn't sit next to a white person on a bus in many states. It's 2013 now and there are no longer any excuses for this sort of despicable discrimination. It's easy to associate racism purely with name-calling, while forgetting what the term really refers to. If an employer gives a job to a white man that a Comanche is more qualified for, then that's racism, plain and simple. No matter how good an actor Depp is, he can't play a Comanche as well as an actual Comanche.
Jay Silverheels, who portrayed Tonto in the fifties series, may not have been Comanche (he was a Mohawk) but at least he was a Native American. If audiences could accept a non White actor in the role 60 years ago, why not now? The answer is, audiences wouldn't have a problem at all, apart from the odd racist nutjob. Casting Depp is a purely commercial decision, one made to cash-in on the popularity of his previous collaborations with director Verbinski on the woeful but hugely successful 'Pirates of the Caribbean' series. What puzzles me is why he couldn't have been cast in the title role, thus allowing a Native American actor to essay the role of Tonto. (Is anyone really drawn to this film by the presence of Hammer, the new Brendan Fraser?) As if the casting wasn't offensive enough, the screenwriters have Tonto repeatedly refer to himself as an "Indian".
With that gripe off my chest, let it to be known that had this been a good movie, I would still have aired my issues with this aspect of the film. As it is, 'The Lone Ranger' is far from a good movie. Like several recent Hollywood tent-pole releases, the film is trying to capture the largest audience possible, resulting in a schizophrenic mess. The Ranger and Tonto are portrayed as a pair of comic buffoons, presumably with the aim of entertaining a pre-teen audience, but when the pair are offscreen the film changes tone drastically, attempting to keep adults interested with a plethora of violence. There are more onscreen deaths here than the bloodiest of spaghetti westerns and the film has quite a dark tone when the two leads are absent. If you cut out all their scenes, it would seem like a decent stab at a traditional western. The film, to its credit, is shot on location and Monument Valley looks resplendent, particularly on a giant IMAX screen. The supporting cast are impressive; Ficthner is suitably sleazy as the main villain, Pepper is great as always as a corrupt cavalry leader and the casting of Wilson, an actress who falls outside the usual waif archetype, is commendable. It feels like Badge Dale has been in every other movie this summer and he's often been the highlight of said movies. That's true again here and I'd much rather have followed his character rather than the two buffoons we're saddled with (pun intended). Sadly, his role is miniscule.
The narrative device of an ancient Tonto relating his exploits to a wide-eyed kid, is a bizarre and pointless gimmick that just pads the already butt-punishing 149 minute running time. Every 15 minutes or so we cut back to this nonsense in order for Tonto to tell us what just happened in the previous 15 minutes, just in case you had popped to the toilets for a line of coke to keep yourself awake. At one point he reminds us about a plot point we couldn't possibly have forgotten, completely ruining the intended effect of the following set-piece. With this being the first of an intended franchise that ain't gonna happen, thanks to its disastrous US box-office performance, much of the film is spent on the origin stories of the two leads and even the dead bird on Tonto's head gets its own backstory. If only one of these movies could have the balls to open with its characters already fully formed, rather than wasting time explaining where a damn mask came from, and throw us straight into a proper, fully formed story. (After 20-plus films, we've never been given James Bond's origin story. Do we care? No!)
Verbinski is not a bad director but he's certainly a one-dimensional film-maker. His 1997 debut, 'Mousehunt' revolved around a series of cleverly staged Rube Goldberg inspired sequences. It's a technique he's relied on for almost every one of his set-pieces since, and this film is no different. The climactic set-piece, an over-the-top train chase reminded me of the horrific jungle chase from 'Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' in the weightlessness of its CG effects. When the Lone Ranger theme (Rossini's 'William Tell Overture') finally kicks in for that climax, we're reminded of how much fun this film should have been and what a waste of both budget and concept we've witnessed.
The movie's final "gag" is a real kick in the teeth for fans of the character and makes you wonder why Hollywood producers insist on adapting concepts they find embarrassing, as though they think we've all become so knowing and postmodern that we can't just accept a simple fun concept anymore. Hollywood needs to look to its past, when it simply gave us the films we needed, instead of worrying about what we think we want.
2/10


Eric Hillis

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