In one of the busier scenes in Gore Verbinski's very busy The Lone Ranger, dozens if not hundreds of Comanche tribesmen are brutally gunned down by a machine-gun-armed U.S. Cavalry. This sad and ugly violence — employed to represent the larger cultural annihilation being waged throughout the American West in the bloody era of Manifest Destiny — is intercut with shots of Johnny Depp, at the moment dressed up like a Chinese rail worker but face still covered in warpaint, furiously pumping a railway handcar with a blindfolded Armie Hammer as his passenger. Tonto and the Lone Ranger's wacky, madcap getaway complete, we are then allowed a somber moment to pause and reflect on the terrible bloodshed to which we were just subjected. Verbinski lingers for a beat, but then it's quickly onto the next antic set piece, this long and unwieldy film barreling along and leaving someone else to bury the bodies. And, of course, trusting us to forget them.
That's the strange problem at the heart of this movie: Presumably conscious of the racial and cultural problems inherent in not just The Lone Ranger, but in our entire mythologizing of the Wild West, Disney chose to make a movie that acknowledges the dark and troubling facts of American expansion but that's also, y'know, fun for the kids and stuff. And with Johnny Depp! And so we get Verbinski's strange and scattershot movie, which veers wildly in tone in a way that insults both any reverence for the past and our simple intelligence as summertime moviegoers. Verbinski's now trademark air of corporate whimsy syncs up badly with the more sober, though glancing, historical lessons, leaving everyone in the picture completely stranded, running around in a world that means nothing while saying everything.
Speaking of saying something, what is there to be said about Johnny Depp's Tonto, a curious creation whose offensiveness likely depends on perspective? Verbinski and the three credited screenwriters use Tonto in a framing device that turns the movie into something of a bedtime story. In 1930s San Francisco, a wide-eyed little boy (and I mean wide — this kid's eyes are huge) stares in wonderment as the "Noble Savage" in a Lone Ranger exhibit at a carnival comes to life and tells a tale of the Old West. It's never explained what Tonto is doing standing motionless in a carnival exhibit for presumably hours at a time; it's simply the movie's first hint that a magical or otherwise supernatural force may be in play here. What that force might be is never explained, though Tonto seems if not responsible for it, certainly keyed into it. So they've gone and made Tonto something of a Magical Indian (or is his magic a mental delusion, which is suggested in the film?), which will rankle, or worse, some people. And I can't blame them.
In the smaller terms of movie as moviemaking, Depp's work here feels lazy, undercooked. It's the same daffy, anachronistic high-comedy of Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter, but applied to a character who is hellbent on getting revenge while his people are being murdered and displaced left and right. There's nothing remotely thoughtful about what Depp is doing, though this is the role he perhaps should have been most thoughtful about. Though, I suspect that had he thought about it too much he'd have decided not to do it at all. The Tonto character here squares off against the civilian men who did him wrong years ago — all the while talking about wendigos and spirit walkers — and by the film's rattling end goes after the Cavalry too. There is supposed to be some sense of righteous and satisfying revenge here, but of course we all the while know how the bigger story is going to end. The mighty and wily Tonto is reduced to a carnival oddity, so many of his people gone, with not even his friend the Ranger there to help him out.
I suppose that could be read as some sort of statement about something, but it's never teased out in Depp's depthless (but decidedly not Deppless) performance, nor does the movie seem much concerned with asserting any sort of final opinion. Instead, we mostly get the Lone Ranger's origin myth: Once a principled and kinda wimpy lawyer, John Reid is flung into action when his grizzled, tough-guy Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale, not given enough to do) takes him on a mission to hunt down a dastard named Butch (an effectively icky William Fichtner). Things go haywire, lots of blood is spilled (many, many people die in this movie — too many, I'd say), and the Lone Ranger is born. Well, not right away. This movie plays up Reid's goofy, annoying bumblingness for a large part of the film, until he suddenly acquires a wagonload of awesome skills just in time for the movie's runaway train climax.
Hammer barely registers — he's the Nilla Wafer of actors — while the main plot, about railroad companies and some shady business involving peace treaties with the Comanche, veers in and out of darker political themes that, again, it handles awkwardly. By the time we get to that runaway train and Verbinski has a beefed-up version of the William Tell Overture kick in, we're supposed to be elated to see this kinda kitschy but undeniably fun old hero back in rollicking action. Verbinski can certainly stage a sequence of flight and fight with intricate, dizzy flair (the Southwest locales are filmed beautifully, too), but we've been slogging along for so long at this point (the movie is an aching 150 minutes), through so much sadness and silliness, that I was mostly excited that the movie would be ending soon. One of the last lines in the film is a revolted Tonto saying to Reid, "Don't ever do that again." Mr. Depp, and everyone else involved: Please take your own advice.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.