So. We know I take a long time to get to movies. I will go to a movie theater maybe three, four times a year; I like to engage on my own terms. Some movies I know will lose very little impact by waiting a while and watching when I want, not by making an appointment with it. There are some movies, admittedly, that I will strive to see in their natural setting (no matter how degraded that setting has become), but let’s face it: there is much more fare I know can wait. I knew The Lone Ranger was going to be such a movie before the first negative press was ever unleashed.
Yeah, I’m old. I remember watching the Clayton Moore TV series when I was a kid, somehow never realizing he was wearing tights, not jeans. There was a Lone Ranger cartoon in the good old bad old days of violent Saturday morning cartoons that was cheap but thoroughly bizarre, inflected with its prime time contemporary, The Wild Wild West (there was a later, Filmation cartoon that was typically sanitized and useless). In the pulp movie revival fueled by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there came Legend of the Lone Ranger, which I have never seen.
Our old pulp heroes have a built-in problem, being creatures of the pop culture of their time, and that is the not terribly-enlightened handling of sidekicks of any color but white. Mandrake the Magician would probably make a decent movie character, being so visually oriented, but the muscle-bound, leopard-skin wearing, be-fezzed Lothar would have to be re-booted several times before he could even begin to be acceptable. More on sidekickery later.
Despite this, Disney still went ahead with The Lone Ranger. Casting a white actor, Johnny Depp, as the traditional “faithful Indian companion, Tonto” is really the least of its problems. America has a particularly shameful history in its dealings with the native population, and most modern Westerns have at least a small portion of their running time devoted to this. The Lone Ranger has at least two instances of genocidal imagery, and in a better-structured movie, either of them might have mattered. But here, it simply becomes part of the white noise that slowly engulfs the story (and no matter what anyone else says, Depp is doing a superb Jay Silverheels imitation).
Through some judicious editing and – I know this is heretical, but what the hell – another run of the script through the writing mill, unhampered by focus groups, this might have been a much tighter movie at only two hours, and possibly a kickass, exciting one at 90-100 minutes. This is a problem I have with Gore Verbinski movies in general, and the major reason I never got past the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I don’t mind a meandering path in a movie, as long as it builds to its set pieces and provides what I came to an action movie to see: action, preferably of the cathartic kind. But chances are, if you took Verbinski or Depp out of the mix, this movie would not have gotten made.
Now, the Lone Ranger story is such an antique, we did need the origin story retold (I suppose), especially since we’re taking a few liberties with it to give our new version of the character his Hero’s Journey. This time, John Reid is a hastily-deputized Texas Ranger, who follows his brother in a posse tracking escaped outlaw Butch Cavendish, who is now a cannibal (just in case he wasn’t villainous enough before). Surviving the ambush, John is chosen by a “spirit horse” to be the “Spirit Walker”, the man who cannot be killed, at least according to Tonto. Then again, we will also later be told that Tonto was driven insane by causing the death of his tribe by leading two white men to the silver mine that will be the McGuffin for our plot.
I counted three separate instances where the movie’s plot had obviously entered its end game, but the script then undercut that and decided to keep going for an hour or so. The bizarre egregiousness of some of the story problems has no better example than Helena Bonham Carter’s character, Red Harrington (some junior executive took a three-martini lunch and the rest of the day off after coming up with that name), a whorehouse madam with an ivory prosthetic leg that conceals a shotgun. To justify her prominence in the advertising materials, the plot will then twist itself into a few more topologically improbable shapes to accommodate her part in the complex end sequence.
Armie Hammer does everything he is asked to as John Reid. Sadly, what he is told to do is often some pretty stupid stuff. There are times when the template seems to be lifted from The Green Hornet movie, where Britt Reid (yes, notice the last name, Warren Ellis fans) is the comic doofus and Kato (again, your mandatory sidekick of color) is the competent one. And more than once The Lone Ranger reminded me of another ill-starred Western reboot, Wild Wild West, especially about the time we go to Red Harrington’s whorehouse, so reminiscent of Fat Can Candy’s that I kept expecting to see Kevin Kline in drag.
There are borrowings from other movies, tributes that I can accept: the use of Monument Valley (though I don’t remember it being in Texas), and a complicated love triangle with two brothers and one’s wife straight out of The Searchers. Three locomotives are wrecked in this movie, one named The Jupiter, in deference to Buster Keaton’s train-centric The General (and Depp’s love for the comedian is indulged in several of the action set pieces). I’m okay with that.
Disney had a similar failure with John Carter, the difference being that John Carter was a much more solidly-constructed movie and deserved better (it also hedged its bets, as its indigenous noble savages were aliens). The Lone Ranger, though, is a morass of story ideas that are often in the wrong order, and the viewer simply waits, tapping its foot and checking its watch, to get to the action sequences, which are gorgeously shot, exciting, and expensive.
I do get why some people don’t like the movie, and it has a lot to do with what I’ve outlined above. What I don’t get is the hate directed toward it. I’m pretty sure there’s a “worst movie ever made” review or three thousand out there, and my response is always going to be, “You don’t watch near enough movies.” Yes, despite all my bitching, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger. Not enough to watch it again, but I had a fairly pleasant time.
I’ve said it before, I will say it again: my relationship with a movie is very simple. I ask that it entertain me, and I will allow myself to be entertained. It’s not that hard, but a lot of movies manage to fail that simple deed.
And I really feel that sometimes, what is missing from many people’s approach is that, simply, they will not allow themselves to be entertained. Like a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie desperately seeking their one version of God when evidence of God is all around them, a lot of movie-goers demand that rush, that tingle they got the first time the star destroyer rushed overhead and kept rushing, or Indy ran from the boulder. And when that rush does not come, the movie is obviously worse than the heat death of the universe. People. You’re not always going to get that. And if that’s all you’re looking for, you’re going to miss what is offered to you. Permit yourself to have some fun, for God’s sake. And I absolutely, honest-to-God do not understand the concept of “hate-watching”. What the hell. There is a doctoral thesis waiting to be written on that life-wasting nonsense.
Having said that, I am now going to undercut myself, because that’s another takeaway from Wild Wild West: undercutting and demeaning your source. At the end of WWW, as was traditional in the TV series, when they had some time to fill or a plot point cheat that needed explanation, Artie would ask West, “Mind if I ask you a question?” They did this in the movie, but Will Smith’s answer was a dismissory, “Actually, I would mind.” In The Lone Ranger, Reid finally, finally, rears up on that gorgeous white horse and belts out, “Hiyo Silver! Away!” to which Tonto says, “Never do that again!” It’s supposed to be a laugh line, but we’ve been waiting for that a long time. We have, in fact, been waiting the entire movie to hear that trademark line. And that is probably the reason why “Fuck you, movie!” is the last thing anyone remembers about The Lone Ranger.
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