The Lone Ranger (2013) (Redux)
So, whilst my first Scenes of the Year list was well received (thanks, by the way), it raised a few eyebrows. Biggest brow lifter was my inclusion of the universally loathed Lone Ranger alongside more “legitimate” picks like Gravity and Django Unchained. The Lone Ranger was one of 2013’s highest profile flops with reported losses being around the $190 million mark. Fingers have been pointed and various elements blamed. The production history is fascinating though. It went way over budget (apparently due to goddamn werewolves – not making that up), was cancelled thanks to Cowboys & Aliens stinking up the box office, only to be resurrected and bomb regardless. Anyway, like the disgusting narcissist that I am, I was re-reading my original review of it and found it to be lacking. I basically used the film as an example of the bloated corporate side of filmmaking that spawned it rather than focusing on the film itself. So, against better judgement, I went out, got myself a copy and rewatched it for the purposes of a more in-depth redux review. Guess what? My opinion has changed somewhat.
“Horse says you are spirit walker: a man who has been to the other side and returned.”
The Lone Ranger starts with a framing device of an old Tonto (Johnny Depp) telling a small boy about his adventures back in the day. We flashback and see the idealistic lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) arriving at the small town of Colby, Texas to visit his Sheriff brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). To celebrate the new railroad connecting towns like Colby to the rest of the United States and beyond, Mayor Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) brings in notorious cannibalistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to publicly hang him in the town square. Old West tits go up when Cavendish escapes, leaving Tonto and Reid to become unlikely allies and uncover a plot that involves much more than a simple heart-eating psychopath. As I’ve said before, the performances are all decent. Depp’s insistence on playing Tonto as another wacky-as-fuck character is a bit out there, but I think he’s pretty amusing. The film has plenty of actual Native Americans in the wings, so the decision for Depp to go redface is baffling. Still, John Carter proved that not having a big name in your film knackers you straight out of the gate, so it’s understandable, if not exactly politically correct. I think Armie Hammer does a great job too. He’s shackled by the Tonto focused script, but he manages to really sell both sides of Reid.
In my original review, I stated that the film’s cynicism was one of the main things that turned me off about it. That’s still true to a certain extent, but I think it runs deeper than that. The film has little to no love for the source material. I’m nothing approaching a Lone Ranger fan. The radio plays, the TV show and subsequent films were all way before my time and I never saw the Filmation cartoon growing up. I knew just about as much as the standard pop culture osmosis grants, including the little joke at the top of all this. All the famous Lone Ranger hallmarks that I, a Ranger pleb, would expect are in the film but they feel token and concessionary. It’s almost like it’s too cool for school and wants to distance itself from its origins. In fact, this rewatch reminded me of the similarly afflicted Star Trek Into Darkness, which had a script made up of famous “bits” and not much else. The story they went with is not a good Lone Ranger tale, it’s a dark western inexpertly made to fit the property. It certainly doesn’t feel organic. Another film it reminded me of was the apparently ubiquitous Batman Begins. You may scoff at this, but when you take into account the fact that the basic story is a young man returning to his home town to find it full of criminals and corruption and adopting a masked, vigilante persona to take the fight to them, it may not seem that ridiculous. Add in the overall dark tone, the casting of Bat-actors Tom Wilkinson and William Fichtner, along with canned Batman Armie Hammer in the lead role. It even has a train finale that could have very easily contained the line “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”. One could argue that these are basic story points and coincidences, but I don’t know. Begins has been the cheat sheet that a metric fuckton of films have worked from for about ten years now, to the point where I refuse to believe that any kind of hero origin story hasn’t had Nolan’s name chucked about at least once during scripting. Cynicism does hang over the whole production, so it probably a case of “what’s popular right now and how can we fit it to this?” rather than “how do we make people care about the Lone Ranger again?” My guess is they just had “Pirates of the Caribbean (x Depp) + Batman Begins + HORSE (LOL) + ???? = $$$$$$$” written on the first draft of the script.
Without all the Ranger dressing, the basic story is actually pretty decent. It’s not the whitewashed classic Western “cowboys r awesome” yarn we’re used to seeing. It definitely takes a revisionist view of things. Nobody’s a hero and violence reigns supreme. It’s a more realistic take on how the Old West actually was, rather than how it’s been portrayed for decades. In an odd direction for a PG-13 crowd pleaser, the film plumbs the darker depths often. Examples? Well, in one scene, Reid fires a lucky shot. After bouncing off things in a comedic manner, including Tonto’s “I am Crow” headgear, it hits a suspended plank and takes out two villains. Standard stuff, but respectable enough. However, we then see that instead of just knocking them out or non-specifically killing them, the wood CRUSHED THEIR FUCKING HEADS. I ain’t squeamish, but fucking ow! If a similar scene appeared in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (great flick, by the way), I’d have laughed my little socks off. Here it just jars. There’s a grisly sequence where a Comanche army get mowed down by superior American firepower. There’s also a Tonto flashback later on that’s pretty grim viewing too. Thing is, these scenes would be effective if the film wasn’t trying to have its cake and eat it too. You can’t have Tonto and Ranger larks coupled with a grisly, post-modern take on how the West was actually won. It just doesn’t gel. There are some decent, challenging ideas here, especially considering the blockbuster forum. They just appear in the wrong film.
With all this we come back to the film’s other major problem of tone. The Pirates films had some dark stuff along with the swashbuckling adventure, but it was handled with a lot more care. Pirate stories usually have more than a few elements of the macabre about them anyway. Having scenes of realistic-feeling mass murder appearing in the same film as japes with Silver and a completely left-field decision to have CGI carnivorous rabbits creates a very odd final product. The script is a mess, but it’s a fascinating one. It’s a multi-car pile up, but the vehicles involved are brightly painted and make cartoon sound effects when compressed. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio show no signs of returning to their golden age when their scripting was sharp and witty. From the looks of it, the third writer Justin Haythe may be the one responsible for grounding the film, steering the script away from some bonkers direction a pair of writers high off their own farts were intent on going. It still feels like a continuation of the duo’s work on the Pirates films, however, albeit with characters that you’re not utterly fucking sick of. Outside of the fun Tonto/Ranger interplay, there are some real clunky lines of dialogue and a distinct lack of subtlety when it comes to exposition. Had I not observed their decline, I wouldn’t have even dreamt that the writers responsible for Curse of the Black Pearl could have written something as hacktastic as some of this.
This may shock readers and past lovers of mine, but I’m not a machine. I’m a squishy human being who doesn’t work in binary. I very rarely purely hate or love something. My opinions change and evolve as I do. Despite all the nitpicking and grievances above, I’ve come to the realisation that I actually like The Lone Ranger, quite a bit. There is a lot of good in there striving to escape. The Tonto/Ranger bits are fun, the action sequences well executed and memorable (especially the finale) and some of the ideas are great. Yeah, it’s bloated and overlong but unlike something like Desolation of Smaug it still has a strong focus on the main story. Yeah, Helena Bonham Carter’s character is completely pointless and adds fuck all to the story, but she adds some colour to proceedings and has a fun ivory gun leg (that may be my favourite sentence that I’ve ever written). Gore Verbinski is a fantastic director and gets to fill the lens with iconic Western scenes and vistas that are just as impressive as they always have been. He knows how to shoot action properly (still a rarity) and keeps things feeling pacy, even if the film is taking its sweet time to tell a relatively simple story. It’s all too weird and surreal to be completely dismissed. It’s a strange potluck type of film.
“It was a ranger, Butch! A lone ranger!”
I get the feeling that The Lone Ranger may be looked on as “misunderstood” rather than simply terrible in a few years. Let’s not go mental, it’s never going to be a hailed as a classic or anything, but I think people were a little too harsh to judge it (myself included) and it may just find an audience yet. It’s not the mass-made production line sludge that I initially took it for. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than that. Hollywood doesn’t usually make this sort of film and that could have been one of the reasons it failed. The Lone Ranger is the sort of film that I’ll admit to liking just to see monocles drop at fancy parties. Whereas there’s nothing of any real substance to discuss with hated Hollywood dreck like the Transformers sequels, The Lone Ranger provokes discussion. Even when it’s bad, it’s interestingly bad. That’s why it’s not only getting a decent three star rating but the caveat that it’s a good three stars as well, even edging on four. Haters to the east because I’m all about the west.