Can Johnny Depp Pull Off the "Wise Native American" in <i>The Lone Ranger</i>?

07/05/2013 11:58 AM |

The Lone Ranger Johnny Depp Tonto Gore Verbinski

The Lone Ranger: It was Orson Welles who supposedly called Hollywood the best train-set a boy could ask for, and while you get the feeling that Gore Verbinski heartily agrees, the multi-train slapstick-action sequence he choreographs for the climax of The Lone Ranger owes more to Buster Keaton than Welles—and comes after two hours of homage and genre riffs that recall a live action, sometimes unwieldy version of Verbinski’s last film, Rango—also something of a Western. The overstuffing is also typical of Verbinski’s other, more famous collaboration with star Johnny Depp: the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the first entry of which turned Depp, after almost two decades in the movie business, into a massive international box-office attraction.


Lone Ranger shares screenwriters with those Pirates movies, and while it’s similarly overlong at 150 minutes, it doesn’t suffer from the labyrinthine overplotting that dragged down the farce in all three of those installments, particularly the sequels. Much of it has the straightforwardness of backstory: upright and vaguely uptight city lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) returns to his hometown, goes on a manhunt with his brave older brother Dan (James Badge Dale), seems to die only to return with the possible help of Comanche warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp). They team up to bring justice to an outlaw (William Fichtner) who is framing the Comanche tribe for treaty-breaking raids. And if you don’t think this has something to do with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, well, you haven’t seen Chinatown or Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Rango, and that’s just for starters.

Verbinski, as mentioned, is at least in part responsible for Depp’s immense popularity as well as the ever-prudent backlash that has dictated him tired, over, sellout, hack, and so on; a shadow of his former outlaw self from the 90s (you know, back when he made only quality movies like Nick of Time and The Astronaut’s Wife). So the knives are out times two for The Lone Ranger, which casts Depp as a Native American with heavy make-up, doing a quieter but equally shticky variation on his iconic troublemaker Captain Jack Sparrow. His Tonto, first glimpsed under a different sort of make-up as a beyond-elderly man at a bizarre carnival exhibit in the early 30s, has Sparrow’s screwiness but more self-discipline. Depp both parodies and expands on the Wise Native American archetype, filtering it through silent comedy, with an elastic sense of how savvy, sane, and/or self-aware Tonto is.

Hammer’s Lone Ranger, guided along by Tonto, is similarly and less productively elastic: the movie doesn’t seem to know quite what it makes of the character, who bumbles his way through the proceedings in between bouts of physical derring-do. Is he a buffoon who keeps getting lucky? A buffoon who actually enjoys some small, subtle degree of supernatural empowerment from his near-death experience? A crack shot who’s still a little green in battle? An Indiana Jones type who takes a licking but doesn’t give up? The movie supports all of these interpretations, and possibly more; I don’t mind the ambiguity, but put together with a slippery Tonto, the idea of the Lone Ranger sometimes feels centerless, at odds with itself.

This may be intentional; the story is told by older Tonto, to a young boy at a carnival, which adds mysterious, melancholic tones, as well the additional leeway of an unreliable narrator. Once in a while, Tonto or the boy interrupts the action with revisions, asides, or jumps ahead in time. Verbinski keeps these moments on a leash, but frankly, more interruptions might have enlivened the movie’s tendency, like the Pirates pictures, to run in circles. There’s a lot of space between the opening train robbery and the grand final sequence, and some it is well-filled with character notes and amusing Ranger-Tonto bickering. But lacking another dazzling set-piece in the middle, and featuring more than enough footage of Hammer and Depp wandering around in the desert engaging in hit-or-miss banter, I wish the narrative’s structural daring matched that of its action sequences.

And what sequences: Verbinski brings a perfectly timed Looney Tunes sensibility to elaborate action pieces that nonetheless look (for the most part) reasonably convincing within live-action fantasy realms; there’s plenty of CG on display, but you never feel you’re watching a bunch of cartoon characters clobber and chase each other. The climax, set to the William Tell Overture (the Ranger’s theme in previous incarnations), swoops and snaps into place without the blunt-force trauma of so many summer blockbusters, with Depp as a silent, mischievous catalyst and Hammer finally taking control of the Lone Ranger’s destiny. It’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Your judgment on its admission-worthiness, of course, may vary; The Lone Ranger has seemingly already enraged a fair number of critics and disinterested a fair number of moviegoers for reasons I can’t quite wrap my head around. (It’s similar to the vitriol that greeted After Earth: this is where you draw a line in the summer-movie sand? Do you guys remember Michael Bay and his contempt for the audience, or Brett Ratner and his laziness?). Verbinski may be accused of hinting at complex ideas without developing them—Native American genocide gets a fair amount of attention here, and while it’s nice to see a movie own its high body count, rather than leaving it entirely as implication a la Man of Steel, there are some jarring transitions between dark revisionist Western and action-adventure romp (based on his CV, Depp would be equally at home in both movies, but spends more time in the latter).

But his craft, at least, is impeccable. Verbinski’s movies often play like toned-down versions of Depp’s other big-money collaborator, Tim Burton: ornate and tactile production design, plenty of grotesquerie and mordant humor, cleverly framed shots (one bit of semi-offscreen gore is glimpsed in the reflection of Hammer’s eyeball), and encouragement of Depp’s weirdest instincts. Lone Ranger even has Helena Bonham Carter, outfitted with a pearl fake leg with a hidden gun, whose tragicomic backstory gets told in a single cut to a wide shot. Verbinski’s movies are expensive and sometimes indulgent and often silly, but the expense and indulgence are up there on screen, and the silliness is intentional. I wouldn’t mind seeing Verbinski return to his genre-hopping roots (he also made the fairly disparate The Ring, Mousehunt, and The Weather Man), and if The Lone Ranger flops he may well retreat there, but his playfulness is a cool glass of weirdly flavored lemonade.