July 3, 2013



THE LONE RANGER:  Not Even For Free – The Silver Bullet Is Self-Inflicted

Disney’s reluctance to produce THE LONE RANGER is well-documented; the studio even shut down the production shortly before shooting was to begin in order to force producer Jerry Bruckheimer, producer/director Gore Verbinski and producer/star Johnny Depp to slim down the production budget.  In this case, “slim down” only meant getting the total below $250M (which means $400M when global marketing is added in), and it seems like when all was said and done, the number didn’t stay reduced by very much or for very long, putting the studio at great risk with a genre that has limited appeal in the US and even less overseas.  But Disney is in a multi-billion dollar business with Bruckheimer and Depp (and sometimes Verbinski) on Pirates of the Caribbean, and the studio badly wants that franchise–one of the very few still dependent on a single, irreplaceable star–to continue, so the studio bit the (silver) bullet and wrote the checks.

Perhaps in the big picture, having Depp amenable to another Pirates makes it all worthwhile, but when it comes to The Lone Ranger, the studio’s fears have pretty much come true.  There are parts of Ranger that come from the right place, that seem to be a heartfelt attempt to resuscitate the western genre and salute many of its classics.  But at the same time, the movie is also trying to parody that very genre, provide a big helping of what amounts to Captain Jack Sparrow Goes West, paint the old story with a thick coat of political correctness, and indulge in the very 21st-century practice of bloated tentpole overproduction.  The result is, for the most part, a dreary mess that doesn’t work on any of the levels it attempts.

Since this is a Johnny Depp-led production, the key figure in this Lone Ranger is Tonto.  We meet him at first in 1931, at a San Francisco carnival where he appears to be a mannequin in an “old west” diorama who comes to life for a young visitor.  Is he real?  If anything he tells the boy meant to be taken as fact?  The possibly unreliable narrator flashback structure allows the movie to claim a certain amount of tall tale about what follows, but it doesn’t begin to justify the non-stop self-indulgence.

The story the aged Tonto tells the boy takes place 70 years earlier, and concerns John Reid (Armie Hammer), a tenderfoot Harvard-educated lawyer who comes to Texas to serve as the new prosecuting attorney in a frontier town where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a Texas Ranger and the railroad, pushed by industrialist Lathan Cole (Tom Wilkinson), is making its way west.  John also has a history with Dan’s wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) far back in their past.  Although he’s idealistically opposed to any violence not dealt out by a court, John accompanies Dan on a manhunt for vicious killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a pursuit that leads to an ambush and a particularly ugly end for Dan.  John, too, is believed to be dead, but Tonto–at the urging of the “spirit-horse” Silver–reluctantly acknowledges that he’s alive and the two set out to catch Cavendish.  Naturally, all this becomes part of a bigger story that involves a fabulously lucrative vein of silver on Comanche territory and Tonto’s tragic past.

This Lone Ranger doesn’t give viewers anything to hang onto during its painfully long 149 minutes (it could easily have been cut by 45).  Since John Reid is conceived as a naive, fancypants buffoon who’s constantly being corrected and ridiculed by Tonto, there’s no relationship between the two leads (Hammer does what he can, but there’s very little part to play)–and anyway, Depp is off in space doing his Jack Sparrow business of deadpan slapstick and facetious pronouncements as he proves himself smarter than anyone else on screen, so he doesn’t engage with anyone else.  That schtick works in the Pirates movies (in the first two, anyway), because that series takes itself less seriously, and it has far better villains to hold up their end of the action.  There’s also some romance in the Pirates universe, while here womankind is limited to Ruth Wilson, brilliant as a serial killer on Luther but just a frontier damsel in distress here, and Helena Bonham Carter, as a madam whose character is for some reason a homage to Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.  

Verbinski and Depp have already shown that they have their own spin on the western genre with the genuinely original Rango, a weirdly wonderful existential Hunter Thompson hallucination of an animated spaghetti western.  But the cost and pressure of being a giant summer tentpole doesn’t allow for that kind of off-beat sensibility, so in Lone Ranger, the filmmakers have to keep interrupting their riffs with conventional massive action sequences (or, if you prefer, the opposite).  There’s no consistency to the tone–on the one hand, the movie treats tropes of the source material like the silver bullet seriously, while at the same time it turns Silver the horse and the mask into running gags.  The final half-hour is so loaded with CG and stunts only possible with digitally removed wires that it has no emotional impact whatsoever.  (The traditional “William Tell Overture” is the music for the sequence, but the action goes on so long that Hans Zimmer has to keep extending and repeating it ad nauseum, a fair analogue for the sequence itself.)

The script is credited to Justin Haythe, who wrote the far lower key Snitch, Revolutionary Road and The Clearing, and to the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose work includes the original Pirates.  For whatever reason, the result has none of the serious characterization of Haythe’s work, nor the effective playfulness with genre of Elliott and Rossio’s–perhaps the end product of years of rewrites, almost certainly by other writers as well.  Verbanski, too, while contributing some gorgeous vistas (the sometimes slightly desaturated photography is by Bozan Bazelli), is off his mark, unable to establish a rhythm as he cuts back and forth from sober western beats to self-conscious hipster silliness.  Every set is too big, every scene lacks nuance.

There probably was a way to make a rebooted Lone Ranger work, whether with a Dark Knight tone, a Rango slant or something else entirely.  But the imperatives of a massive budget drove this Ranger to tonal confusion and an almost complete lack of fun.  Hi-yo Silver, away–indeed.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."