Cinema can’t get much more American than westerns. Their gun-slinging, horse-riding heroes and good ol’ country spirit made it the most popular genre in the country for decades. Eventually, westerns gave way to more modern adventures, but Hollywood is now entering a slow resurgence of the genre, especially with last year’s “Django Unchained.” Disney and director Gore Verbinski hopped onboard that westbound train with their rendition of “The Lone Ranger,” but unfortunately, their definition of “western” is a loose one, combining elements of the adventure and superhero genres to create a muddled, derivative action flick.
This western follows John Reid (Armie Hammer), a no-nonsense lawyer who firmly believes in justice for all, even the worst of criminals. He is sent to work as district attorney in Colby, Texas, where his brother Dan and other Texas Rangers are hunting down the notorious murderer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). But when Butch endangers both the Rangers and the people of Colby, Reid dons a black mask and, with the help of his Indian companion Tonto (Johnny Depp), sets off to bring justice to the West as The Lone Ranger.
The premise is, of course, a familiar one to older audiences who grew up with “The Lone Ranger” TV shows, movies, and even the radio series that started in the 30’s. For younger viewers, the film offers many of the traits that made the originals so popular—an adventurous spirit, lively sense of humor, and memorable (if somewhat one-dimensional) characters.
And there lies this Ranger’s downfall. The reason the film is initially so appealing is that gives material so successful in other movies a western flair. The plot is framed by an older Tonto recounting the adventures of The Lone Ranger to a young boy at a fair, much like Peter Falk narrating “The Princess Bride” to a young Fred Savage. Hans Zimmer’s score (which tactfully uses the William Tell Overture) sounds incredibly similar to his score in 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Then there’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose name is synonymous with fist-flying, guns-blazing fights, and “Lone Ranger” has plenty. They aren’t poorly done by any stretch, but they are in several ways far too similar to the action sequences in Bruckheimer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, only this time they take place on top of fast-moving trains instead of aboard the Black Pearl.
Also returning from “Pirates” is Captain Jack Sparrow, err, Johnny Depp. While his innate talent of fully immersing himself in a role is commendable, Depp seems to have immersed himself in the role of Jack Sparrow during the filming of “The Lone Ranger.” Tonto has the same spacey mindset, witty one-liners, and eye for action as his pirate counterpart. Despite controversy over the legitimacy of his portrayal of a Native American, Depp turns in a nuanced and entertaining performance, especially in the subtle humor that only he can produce. Depp and Hammer complement each other well, perhaps unsurprisingly much like Captain Jack and Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters are as strong as the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Butch Cavendish could have passed for an Old West Jeffrey Dahmer with his bizarre and unnerving desire to eat the hearts of his victims, a strange move on Disney’s part considering the film’s PG-13 rating and clear attempt to reach a younger audience. Helena Boham Carter’s decent but brief appearance as Red Harrington proves “Ranger” is for her just a paycheck—and another in a long list of Johnny Depp collaborations.
“The Lone Ranger” certainly had the potential to be a great comeback for westerns, especially with the talents of Depp and Bruckheimer, but the result is an ultimately forgettable genre mash-up that tries too hard to prove that it is, in fact, a western. And that just doesn’t add up to a blockbuster hit, kemosabe.
*** ½ out of five