Comic Books in Spirit: THE LONE RANGER (2013)

LoneRanger

I am no Lone Ranger fan, but there is something sad about the fact that Gore Verbinski’s take on the character has hit a critical and financial brick wall. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of pulp fiction and comic books will recognize that the character is one of the many forefathers of the costumed heroes who dominate the modern cinema landscape, so if the character was going to have a shot at making a comeback in pop culture, now was the moment for that to happen.

Yet while I feel it is sad that the property’s chance at a resurgence in popular culture is slipping away, I can’t argue with the fact that the filmmakers behind The Lone Ranger have brought this upon themselves. Taken as hero origin story, The Lone Ranger is actually pretty good, delivering the kind of action/adventure thrills one would expect from such a film. However, there is one aspect of the film that is so monumentally wrong that it makes The Lone Ranger an uncomfortable experience at times, and as such a hard film to recommend without reservations.

In this version of the tale, John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a young educated man returning to his home in Texas with the intent of becoming the local prosecutor. The Texas he is returning to however is in the midst of transformation, as the railroad continues to expand thanks to a powerful railroad baron, Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). In a supposed symbolic gesture, Cole is having notorious criminal – and cannibal – Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) transported back to Texas on the same train as Reid for a public hanging. These plans go awry when Cavendish escapes, despite the efforts of Reid and another prisoner in transport, Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has his own reasons for seeking Cavendish.

Joining his Texas Ranger brother on the hunt for Butch, Reid is left for dead when the Rangers are betrayed and ambushed. Only the timely arrival of Tonto – who is hot on Cavendish’s trail – and a mysterious white horse saves Reid from death. Encouraged by Tonto to take advantage of his supposed death, Reid takes to wearing a mask made from his brother’s vest, and the pair sets out to bring Cavendish to justice, only to discover a much larger plot which challenges Reid’s faith in the law and the society he seeks to protect.

The one criticism which has dogged The Lone Ranger in nearly every review has been the issue of the film’s length, and without doubt, the film is at least a good twenty minutes too long. However, unlike the equally overlong Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger’s excessive running length never becomes irritating, as it is used for a more diverse set of purposes than allowing for dour, repetitive action sequences to go on and on. Some material is entirely superfluous, such as the visit to a brothel run by Red (Helena Bonham Carter), and a frame-narrative involving an elderly Tonto and a young boy in 1933 could have been ditched easily with little lost in the grand scheme of things. However, the running length also allows for interesting and unexpected moments which add to the overall experience, such as a scene in which Barry Pepper’s Cavalry Captain is sides with the villains of the film in order to avoid dealing with the guilt of having committed genocide, a moment which packs more emotion in its fleeting moments than the entirety of Man of Steel.

More importantly, what makes the running length of The Lone Ranger tolerable is lead actor Armie Hammer. While some have argued that the film’s somewhat bumbling take on the titular character treats the Ranger and his straightforward heroism as a joke, I’d argue that Hammer’s work here actually keeps the character dignified despite the more humorous approach. While much of the comedy of the film stems from Reid being out of his depth as a man of action and possessing a certain degree of naiveté, Hammer’s sincere performance allows the audience to still invest in Reid as a hero. Of course, having never seen the television series – or even the 1981 film The Legend of the Lone Ranger – I have no real investment in seeing the Ranger portrayed in a particular manner. As such, I am sure some fans will not be thrilled at this take on their beloved hero.

One area which will impress both fans and non-fans of the Lone Ranger is the action sequences, which are nothing short of stunning. There are several main action beats in the film, and each are brilliantly executed, with the climatic action sequence involving a high speed train justifiably receiving kudos even from the harshest of critics. Each sequence features a variety of moving parts, yet Verbinski manages to stage the action like clockwork, with clear storytelling and a deft sense of tone, injecting humour into the action without undermining the tension. Well, save one sequence prior to the climax, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Another nice touch is the relatively restricted presence of CGI in the film, save in some understandable areas, which allows for some truly excellent stunt work to take center stage in the film. When CGI is employed, the work is solid and well integrated with the live action elements.

Like I said near the start of this review, though, the film is not without its problems, and the biggest one happens to be its top billed star. There is just no getting around the fact that the lead Native American character in the film is NOT being played by a Native American actor, and in 2013, that is just absurd (and before anyone points to Johnny Depp’s claims that he may have aboriginal heritage, again, that is a claim, and has been in no way confirmed).  One could try and make the argument that Disney wanted a star in the role, but all that argument does is point out the systemic problems which marginalize Native American storytellers, actors, etc. within the Hollywood system. Moreover, it is not as if major star power could not be secured for other roles in the film, thus putting less pressure to cast a star in the role of Tonto.

However, even if you could overlook the problem with casting a white actor in the role of Tonto, there is still the issue of Johnny Depp’s actual performance. Depp is in full shtick mode here, and while I am sure that some are sick of that style of performance from Depp at this point, my issue is not that Depp is relying  on his old bag of tricks.  The problem is that the main representative of aboriginal culture within the film is reduced to being little more than a collection of comedic ticks which are explained away by the fact that Tonto is perhaps crazy due to a massive mistake he made in childhood.

I want to be clear here: I am not looking for Tonto to be portrayed as some perfect figure without flaws. Nor do I think the idea of Tonto being a bit eccentric and an outsider to his own people is necessarily a bad choice. And I get that Johnny Depp enjoys playing eccentric characters (or, more likely, understands that his eccentric shtick is where his bread and butter comes from). But when you cast a white actor in an aboriginal role and then decide to play the character as potentially crazy so you can give him all sorts of weird ticks – including speaking in broken English, I might add – then it comes across at the very least as insensitive.

What makes the choices of how to portray Tonto all the more awkward is that the filmmakers clearly are attempting to address the how the genocide of the Native American peoples are a part of the history of the United States. Indeed, a key element of the film’s plot involves the villains of the film setting out to break agreements reached with the Comanche tribe, a plot point which eventually results in a sequence in which the Comanche people are slaughtered. On one hand, I would like to give praise to the filmmakers for not just ignoring the darker parts of the history of westward expansion in the United States; on the other hand, the same filmmakers have created this bizarre version of Tonto which is rather uncomfortable to watch. And on the other, other hand, The Lone Ranger is meant as a popcorn adventure film, which is probably not the best place to be tackling such heavy and important subject matter. After the sequence of genocide, no real time is spent addressing the subject or Tonto’s feelings about what has just happened; the film just rolls along into its action climax, and the subject is never again addressed. Indeed, the actual genocide sequence is the one moment where Verbinski’s otherwise solid sense of tone goes out the window as he chooses to end this horrific moment of the film with a visual joke. Sometimes, it is just not right to lighten the mood.

Certainly, The Lone Ranger is not nearly as dunderheaded in its efforts to address the racism of the period as a film like Jonah Hex is, but one has to wonder what heck everyone involved in the film was thinking. Given the choices made, The Lone Ranger is a frustrating experience, a film which works as a hero’s origin story but fails miserably as an exploration of one of the darkest parts of American history. I wont go so far as to suggest avoiding the film at all costs (although plenty of people already seem to have done that), as there is material worth giving a look in the film. Still, it is probably best to wait till the film is available to rent, rather than paying full price at the theatre.

The Lone Ranger (2013, USA, 149 minutes). Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Justin Haythe and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Ruth Wilson, William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson.

Dave

Dave is the co-host of 24 Panels Per Second.

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