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Thursday, July 11, 2013 12:08 am

Ranger undone by schizophrenic tone


Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as John Reid/The Lone Ranger in The Lone Ranger.

Without question, sitting through director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger was the most frustrating film-going experience I’ve had all year. Epic in scope, gorgeous to look at, mythic in its approach to its seminal title character, at its best the film successfully hearkens back to some of the great Westerns and at times pays homage to the films of John Ford and Sergio Leone by reverently tipping its hat to many of the tropes of the genre that those two introduced and wrote large upon the screen. Yet, it’s also a film that ends up being far too silly to be taken seriously, a movie that combines grisly violence with outlandish slapstick comedy to disturbing effect and opts for empty spectacle in its final act when a good, rousing, old-fashioned chase and shoot-out on the main street of a deserted western town would have been just fine.

As he demonstrates here and in Rango, still his best film, Verbinski knows the Western inside out and those of us who are fans of what has become a forgotten genre appreciate his eye for detail and the many allusions to the form he’s sprinkled throughout these two films. Unfortunately, he’s also obviously a fan of the work of Chuck Jones who fashioned classic cartoons featuring a clever roadrunner and a hapless coyote. The outlandish violence in those films was inspired and was suitable to that format, which Verbinski tries to combine with the sweeping scope of this Western. In the end, he proves that the twain do not meet, the result being a schizophrenic affair in which the grandiose is undercut by the ridiculous.

The opening of the film serves as a microcosm of all that’s right and wrong with the project. The setting is a carnival in 1933 San Francisco. A young boy, replete in cowboy regalia and a black mask, wanders into a sideshow that promises to recount the history of the Wild West. Upon coming upon an exhibit showcasing the noble savage, the model of the Native American in it reveals itself to be flesh and blood and is in fact Tonto (Johnny Depp), now old and obsolete, who regales the young man with the tale of the Lone Ranger. Recounting the story in this fashion seems like a good idea, as the clash between the myth the boy knows and the reality Tonto provides could have resulted in an interesting dichotomy and could even speak of the film medium’s own culpability in exaggerating this short piece of our history. However, the conceit is abandoned before it can be explored as Verbinski has trains and settlements waiting to be blown up and he’s not about to waste any time getting to it.

When we first see him, John Reid (Armie Hammer) is an eager young lawyer from the East, coming to Colby, Texas to be reunited with his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) whom he pines for. Deputed by his brother to be a fellow ranger when the posse being formed to track down the nefarious Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) is shorthanded, the greenhorn finds himself the sole survivor of a vicious ambush by the villain and would have perished if he were not found by Tonto and brought back to the land of the living.

The film is a wonder to behold, as Verbinski spared no expense ($250 million to be exact) in bringing his vision to life. The towns are dingy and ragged, the characters are dirty, their clothes tattered and conditions are cruel, all of this set against the most iconic backdrop in the genre, Monument Valley. Equally impressive are the trains used throughout, all of them employed in elaborate set pieces that are at once spectacular (the opening sequence that finds Reid and Tonto trying to stop a runaway locomotive) and ultimately ridiculous (the finale that finds the Ranger and his horse Silver running across the top of a train).

Equally troubling are the characterizations of the two leads. The title character is a bit of a conundrum as played by Hammer as he never inhabits the role of the hero. Buffoonish at first, he never fully shakes the notion that Reid is an Easterner who simply doesn’t belong in this wild environment and is less than convincing in putting forth the notion that he’s changed and embraced the violent brand of justice in his new home. More troubling is Depp’s take on Tonto, who is nothing more than comic relief throughout. Mugging for the camera, employing broad comedic gestures and providing a caricature of a Native American rather than a fully invested portrayal, the actor’s performance is out of place here, more at home in a remake of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles rather than a tribute to a classic American art form.

In the end, it’s Verbinski who shoots himself in the foot as The Lone Ranger follows the same pattern as his bloated Pirates of the Caribbean adventures. What starts off as a meticulously rendered and serious recreation of a beloved genre ultimately comes undone when the director embraces an aesthetic of the ridiculous. What we are left with is a film that strains to be majestic and comic at the same time, yet fails to achieve either fully.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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