About 20 years ago, a friend of mine wrote an extremely witty screenplay for a revisionist-Western comedy based on the Lone Ranger. (It was never produced, though it did win an award that paid for a year of film school.) The script's premise was that the masked man himself was a tall, good-natured schmuck, and it was the long-suffering Tonto who was quietly running the show.
The premise of Gore Verbinski's new blockbuster adaptation of the pulp cowboy classic is more radical still: It's not Tonto who's the brains of the operation in this telling. It's Silver.
The Lone Ranger is a profoundly unsubtle—and equally ill-advised—effort to recapture the improbable charm of Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But while it's not a good movie, neither is it quite the total train wreck implied by many reviews. (It does, however, wreck more than its share of trains.) The film has plenty of weaknesses—an unevenness of tone, a surfeit of plot convolutions, some problematic political echoes—but its central flaw is that it is absurdly, punishingly overlong. Tucked away somewhere in its 149-minute running time, there is a clever, corny summer diversion lasting perhaps an hour and three-quarters. But this is the era of the Big Cinematic Event, and if you don't want every single dollar of a $200-million-plus budget to be waved in your face—well, you may as well stay home and watch TV.
The story (by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, with an assist from Justin Haythe) is straightforward enough in its early contours: A mild-mannered district attorney named John Reid (Armie Hammer), returns home to the Lone Star state following his big-city education. Upon arrival, however, he is deputized as a Texas Ranger by his decidedly manlier brother (James Badge Dale) in order to help capture the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). But things do not go according to plan, and Reid ends up—at least to all appearances—dead. Luckily for him, he is revived by a legendary Spirit Horse (whom he will later repay with the decidedly pedestrian sobriquet "Silver") and a tribe-less and quite possibly deranged Comanche named Tonto (Johnny Depp). Given that Reid is presumed by the world to be deceased, his new partner persuades him to don a mask as they continue their quest to bring Cavendish to justice.
Hokey? Of course. (And I haven't even mentioned the framing narrative, which features an impossibly wizened Tonto telling his story to a young boy at a carnival in 1933 San Francisco...) Yet there's a certain goofy grandeur to the movie's first half or so. Hammer, who played the fabulously wealthy Winklevoss twins in The Social Network—and is himself the great-grandson of the still-more-fabulously-wealthy oil tycoon Armand Hammer—is an amiable enough cinematic presence, and Fichtner is magnificent as Cavendish, snarling and sneering and eating the occasional human body part with demonic aplomb. Moreover, as much as I've tired of Depp's burgeoning menagerie of weirdo performances, his Tonto, though perhaps politically off-key, is at least charitably low-key. (For those who recall Depp in Jim Jarmusch's 1995 neo-Western Dead Man, this is essentially a role reversal, with him taking on the Gary Farmer part as a deadpan Native American sidekick to a clueless white man.)
The movie's early action sequences—in particular one that's set on a runaway train—are witty and inventive, with Verbinski toying neatly with camera placement and spatial geometry. There are likable nods to Once Upon a Time in the West (in particular a railroad subplot and the oscillating dramatic score), Little Big Man, The Searchers, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. And the classic catchphrase "Who was that masked man?" is updated for a more ironic age to "What's with the mask?"
But then, somewhere around the hour-and-a-half mark, The Lone Ranger makes the fateful decision not to end. Worse, the movie keeps not-ending for another full hour. Unnecessary backstories unspool, tiresome gimmicks get rolled out—look! there's Helena Bonham Carter as a tough-but-decent prostitute whose wooden leg is really a gun—and dull new villains are revealed to be behind the perfectly compelling originals. The final action sequence (also set on a train) proves to be as exhausting as the first was amusing, with the body count escalating unpleasantly and the William Tell Overture—used sparingly throughout most of the film—commencing to trample everything in its path.
As cinematic sins go, excessive length is hardly an original one. The delusion that bigger will always be better—that each additional plot twist will somehow signify ingenuity rather than desperation—is by now a fundamental operating principle in Hollywood. Blockbuster directors demand movies large enough to house their egos; the studios are in a state of near-constant panic (and theater owners even more so); genuine storytelling is migrating to television; a lengthy series of explosions translates seamlessly in Beijing or Rio de Janeiro; and on and on.
But to quote Jerry Seinfeld, something's gotta give. I'm sure if I set my mind to it, I could name a recent big-budget film that would have benefited from greater length. But a list of the big-budget films that would have been substantially improved by a zealous trim is... well, awfully similar to a list of big-budget films, period. I can't say whether I might enjoy a Transformers movie that was under two hours long—but one reason that I can't say is because the ones that Michael Bay has offered up to us have clocked in at 144, 149, and 154 minutes respectively. And it's not just the summer blockbusters: Les Miserables was a polished, well-crafted film that labored under the misconception that viewers wanted to pass the 19th century in real time. And don't get me started on Peter Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit or, like the movie itself, I might never stop. The only 140-minute-plus movie of the past two years that I can recall fully earning its running time was Zero Dark Thirty.
But on we go nonetheless, with our Man of Steels and our Lone Rangers and our White House Downs, with movies that seem, at some point around the two-hour mark, to gradually morph from honest efforts at entertainment into acts of mild cinematic bullying. That likable character actor hovering at the periphery of the plot will turn out to be the surprise villain-in-chief. Some idle incident from the first act will reappear as the crucial, and in most cases nonsensical, hinge of the climax. The anesthetic liberalism of the hero will give way to a reluctant (yet quietly gleeful) embrace of force. And a non-incidental number of cars/trains/buildings/cities/planets will be made to explode ostentatiously, though with as little moral weight as can plausibly be arranged. The Lone Ranger hardly invented this formula. But seldom have its defects been laid so bare.
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