When you go in to see The Lone Ranger, you may already know that it’s two-and-a-half hours long, and that it’s been made by the same maestros of noisy bombastic overkill (producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinksi) who brought us the Pirates of the Caribbean series. You may know that it’s based on a noble-masked-man legend so square, rickety, and out-of-date that when the last big-screen version of it appeared, in 1981, the material already seemed like it was from another century. Yet even though I knew all of that, and I’m no big fan of the Pirates films (I didn’t even like the original, ”restrained” one), the fact that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s poker-faced Comanche warrior/sidekick, was enough to give me a tingle of anticipation as the opening credits rolled.
Depp wears ghostly-white dry, cracked mud all over his face, set off by four black stripes (they’re a little like zebra markings, and a little like tears). Atop his hat is a dead crow, which he keeps feeding birdseed. It’s as if Tonto knew something we didn’t: He’s either clued in to the spirit world, or nuts, or maybe a little of both. Clearly, he’s ”the Jack Sparrow character,” but Depp, with eyes color-coordinated to his death-mask makeup, makes Tonto very different than Jack. He’s not dissolute, he’s stern and controlled, a figure off a wooden nickel come to life. With his me-speakum-wisdom-to-the-white-man epigrams, he may be a racially tinged caricature of a Native American ”noble savage,” but Depp doesn’t run from the stereotype. He bites into it and recontextualizes it, and he also satirizes/embraces the more recent (and just as patronizing) image of the Native American as all-knowing mystical soothsayer. That’s the sly joke of Tonto’s presence: He’s a pop-culture artifact that Depp twists around and makes kind of cool. Depp sets himself up as a scene-stealer, and if the script (by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio) had given him some great lines, he alone might have made the movie worth seeing. But The Lone Ranger doesn’t provide Depp with the level of zingers he needed; it gives him the dialogue equivalent of birdseed. You appreciate his stoic-joker presence, but the joke doesn’t detonate.
Tonto first encounters John Reid (Armie Hammer), the Southern-born, East Coast-educated district attorney who will become the Lone Ranger, after Reid is shot and left for dead in the Texas desert, along with half a dozen other men, including his older brother (James Badge Dale). Even though the movie is being marketed to families, it’s almost squalidly violent – and the slaughter is only there to set up a basic revenge plot. For a long time, the priggishly fair-minded Reid, in his silky three-piece suits, doesn’t seem to have a bloodthirsty thought in his head. That’s okay: We don’t want the Lone Ranger to be Charles Bronson. Yet we do want him to be a captivating hero. Armie Hammer, for all his stalwart height, has a smiling softness about him that makes the character a little too vague and wussy. Hammer doesn’t command the center of the movie. He just sort of occupies it.
Verbinski orchestrates a dense, hectic conspiracy plot that hinges on the building of the railroads (and the railroading of Native Americans), and he fills the screen with scowling, disreputable types who have no layers at all. There’s William Fichtner as the film’s chief sociopath, a skinny rotter with burning eyes who suggests Iggy Pop as a black-hatted bad guy; Tom Wilkinson as a mustache-twirling Mr. Big who’s out to make a fortune off the expansion of the rail system; Helena Bonham Carter as a jaded madam with a prosthetic leg made of carved ivory; and Barry Pepper as an Army captain who’s styled to look like Gen. George Custer. (Given that the film is set in 1869, which was Custer’s heyday, you wonder why they didn’t just call him that.) All these characters are nasty, but not one of them in a truly fun way.
The fun, of course, should be in the Lone Ranger’s interplay with Tonto, but the two lead actors strike very few oddball-buddy sparks. Maybe that’s because The Lone Ranger, in a virulent case of what seems to be this summer’s reigning blockbuster disease (call it BOSS – Boring Origin Story Syndrome), spends nearly all of its endless running time shuttling from one plot machination to the next before John Reid finally lets go of his high ideals, puts on his black mask and white hat, and truly becomes the Lone Ranger. Basically, the movie is a two-hour set-up to a half-hour action climax, which Verbinski stages like a louder, more glossily impersonal Steven Spielberg. Still, there’s no denying that Verbinski is good at this stuff. When the train is speeding along, and the Lone Ranger is riding his white horse on top of the train, and Tonto is dancing to avoid bullets, and a bridge the size of Hoover Dam is about to be blown up, and The William Tell Overture is finally — finally! — budda-bump budda-bumping away, your heart races a little bit, and you realize: This is why I wanted to see this movie! Of course, the action climax just goes on and on, making The Lone Ranger the sort of movie that delivers too much too late and still manages to make it feel like too little. C