(by Dustin Putman
"The Lone Ranger" began as a radio program in 1933 and then became a popular television series running from 1949-1957. Though a comic book and a movie or two followed, the franchise has mostly remained a thing of the past, a pop-cultural footnote gathering dust in the memories of those old enough to remember it. In Hollywood's mind, no formerly lucrative brand is ever old enough to refit for modern audiences, and so it goes that "The Lone Ranger" is now an alleged $250-million summer tentpole that nearly got shut down before production began due to its out-of-control budget. Brushing that aside, Disney hopes they have another "Pirates of the Caribbean" on their hands, even enlisting the same director and star, Gore Verbinski (2011's "Rango") and Johnny Depp (2012's "Dark Shadows"), to hopefully pull off a similar worldwide financial success. Alas, the western is a notoriously tricky genre to sell to 21st-century moviegoers, and this latest version of "The Lone Ranger" only gets things right roughly a third of the time. Bookended by elaborate locomotive-set action sequences that capture in all of their glory the perilous thrills and goofy spills of old-time serial adventures, the picture otherwise buries itself with too much of everything except what it needs most: a fleet, fast-paced sense of fun. Article continues below
The year is 1869 and the transcontinental railroad is in the midst of construction as idealistic city-born district attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer) heads to the dusty Texas town of Colby to see his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), now married to comely childhood friend Rebecca (refreshing newcomer Ruth Wilson). On the way, John's train is hijacked by a pack of murderous hooligans determined to break free captured cannibal and Indian killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Despite his vocal aversion to guns—in short, he won't pick one up—John is promoted to Texas Ranger shortly before Dan and the rest of his men are shot dead. Narrowly surviving his injuries and brought back to health by Comanche "spirit warrior" Tonto (Johnny Depp), John decides to partner up with Tonto to avenge his brother's death and bring the sniveling Cavendish to justice.
The above synopsis of "The Lone Ranger" is a barebones description of a film that slows itself down with too many subplots and superfluous side characters. Screenwriters Justin Haythe (2013's "Snitch") and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (2011's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides") apparently never met a needless tangent they didn't like, the narrative frequently losing sight of protagonist John and quirky eventual sidekick Tonto to spend time with Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), highfalutin railroad tycoon; the aforementioned Cavendish, who thinks nothing of ripping people's hearts out and eating them; brothel madam Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter), whose fake leg hides a shotgun on the bottom of her heel; peculiar horse Silver, who's either really dumb or a total genius of the equine persuasion; and John's love interest Rebecca, who, of course, has a spirited young son named Danny (Bryant Prince).
Watching "The Lone Ranger," one can see how it could be shaped and fashioned and whittled down to a spectacular 100-minute adventure in the vein of an "Indiana Jones" installment. Instead, it drags itself out to a bloated 149 minutes. While the time goes reasonably quickly, all things considered, the movie alternately takes itself too seriously and not seriously enough, segueing between brutal violence and jokey farce while never quite capturing the central spark of John's and Tonto's friendship. In the lead roles, the dashing Armie Hammer (2012's "Mirror Mirror") and dauntless Johnny Depp are given so little to work with that they end up fighting the blandness of their parts. As written, Hammer's John Reid is too indecisive while Depp's face-painted Tonto mostly serves as flimsy comic relief. Attempts to bring levity to his character, including flashbacks to a tragic event from his childhood, are ineffective because Depp insists on playing him broadly at just about all times. The one exception: a wraparound segment set at a carnival exhibit in 1933 San Francisco as an elderly Tonto weaves the tale of the valiant so-called "Lone Ranger" to a curious young boy (Mason Cook). It seems as if director Gore Verbinski wants to make a poignant statement about the passage of time and the carrying-down of stories from one generation to the next, but he doesn't quite know how to capture such pathos. It's another missed opportunity.
If "The Lone Ranger" weighs itself down again and again, at least it finally delivers during a stunning third-act set-piece that at long last incorporates all of the elements that should have been readily up on the screen throughout. Scored to the great "William Tell Overture," the movie sprints to life for a chase and battle in and around, up and down, across and on top of two runaway trains running concurrently on separate tracks. It's genuinely rousing while also earning laughs, choreographed to perfection, full of startling stunts and generally seamless effects work, and even seems to reference 1990's "Back to the Future Part III" when Rebecca pulls a Clara Clayton and finds herself hanging upside down on the outside of a locomotive. Why couldn't the whole film have captured this loopy, well-paced tone? Why must everything in the middle ninety minutes be so portentous and long-winded? "The Lone Ranger" is an extravaganza of technical delights, from the detailed art direction and period costumes, to the cinematography by Bojan Bazelli (2012's "Rock of Ages"), dusty with an utmost lushness—and let's not forget the utterly gorgeous opening shot of a ferris wheel twirling at a seaside carnival as the Golden Gate Bridge, in mid-construction, looms dreamily in the distance. What's largely missing in the film is an all-important spirit for adventure. Instead, the proceedings feel overstuffed, for reasons unknown hesitant to drop their rambling self-importance and truly let go. When the film finally does, it comes too late to undo the damage already done.