First thing's first: just because a particular character is the one telling the story in flashback--namely Johnny Depp's version of Tonto--doesn't mean that the story is actually being told from that character's point of view. Most times, it does mean that, but not always. Case in point, the framing device of this overlong, overstuffed, overblown version of THE LONE RANGER story is an elderly Tonto (who looks a little too much like Dustin Hoffman in LITTLE BIG MAN) relaying the birth of the Ranger-Tonto partnership during a time when railroads were cutting through pristine lands and opening up America in ways that could never be reversed.
But I find it difficult to believe that the way Depp, screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and director Gore Verbinski (the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films, RANGO) would choose to honor Tonto and portray him more accurately as an equal partner with Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger is to turn the Native American into a clown. Tonto is nothing more than THE LONE RANGER's comic relief, and Depp is essentially swapping out black face for red face, making the sum total of his performance a series of bug eyes, exaggerated grimaces, and limp jokes that would be better suited for the Catskills than the open desert of Monument Valley.
has elements that work better than others, but Depp's choices with Tonto must be chalked up as a rare example of when his instincts about creating unique and memorable characters have failed him.
I wasn't particularly thrilled with the reworking of the Lone Ranger legend, making the masked man begin life as district attorney John Reid who returns to his hometown where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and brother's wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and son Danny (Bryant Prince) still live. Reid was in love with Rebecca and having her seem to give Dan her attentions caused him to leave. My natural instincts concerning love interests in action movies is to question their necessity, and Ruth and Danny's importance to the story does eventually reveal itself. The more overt villain of THE LONE RANGER is Butch Cavendish (an almost unrecognizable William Fichtner, one of the film's few bright spots), whose scarred face and generally dirty appearance make it pretty clear we're supposed to hate him.
Perhaps only slightly less obviously as a bad guy is Tom Wilkinson's Cole, the man in charge of the railroad's construction and does what he can to protect the railroad from attack from bandits, Indian raiding parties, and the like. His big scheme is to use Cavendish and his gang to stage fake Indian raiding parties, which in turn will lead to the U.S. Cavalry (led by Barry Pepper) to be called in to wipe out the innocent Native population, leaving Cole the freedom steer his railroads through Indian territory. Wilkinson is always a joy to watch, but even he has a tough time selling this tedious and convoluted plan.
Perhaps the least important member of the cast is Helena Bonham Carter as brothel madame Red Harrington, who possesses an artificial leg that converts to a rifle. Look, I enjoy a little Helena now and again, but her character adds so little to this film that you could literally excise every frame she's in, make slight storytelling adjustments, and a have a long film (about 2.5 hours) cut by about 20 minutes. It wouldn't take away Depp's miserable work here, but at least we'd have to endure it for slightly less time.
Verbinski's control of his shot compositions is spectacular, even if the story is a mess. His big action set pieces seem paced exactly right, and reject the laws of physics just enough to keep things interesting. Strong among the cast is Fichtner; and I maintain that a film with him is better than a film without him, in every case. His Cavendish is so supremely nasty that we are left constantly wondering what horrible deed he will commit or word he will utter. There are even hints that he and his gang also happen to be cannibals. Oh my.
Once he puts on the mask and leaves it on, Hammer's Lone Ranger is one of the last remaining pure screen heroes we have in our popular culture. As much as the screenwriters attempt to inject angst-ridden back story to both the Ranger and Tonto, Hammer maintains a deep-voice and perfect jaw line of a classic hero. He even knows best how to react to Depp's wacky portrayal of Tonto, wearing a dead bird on this head (he's still attempts to feed it), and if that isn't a mark of true friendship, I don't know what is. Tonto's flashback within a flashback about his childhood trauma that made him a bit off is going to anger true fans of these characters, but it mainly angered me because it was just plain stupid.
But Tonto's ill-conceived backstory is just one of THE LONE RANGER's many big problems. There's a lengthy final chase sequence/shoot out that involves two trains speeding along parallel tracks toward certain doom. It's set to an extended version of The William Tell Overture, and it's the only section that film that made my heart race even slightly. The two hours leading up to that are largely joy free, surprisingly violent (remember how I mentioned cannibalism?), and just a succession of poor decisions by the filmmakers, of which Depp is clearly a contributor to the bad-idea pool.
It's rare that I ever watch a movie feeling embarrassment on behalf of those that made a film, but I bowed my head in shame on their behalf. I couldn't believe how immediately and definitively THE LONE RANGER lets us know how bad its going to be for so much of its ridiculously long running time. Unless you're into torture and self-mutilation, save your time and your dignity; go see pretty much anything but THE LONE RANGER this holiday weekend.