DISNEY’S GAMBLE THAT THE PLAYERS BEHIND THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN WILL LAUNCH ANOTHER CASH COW LOSES AS THE LONE RANGER TURN OUTS TO BE AN UNINSPIRED LET DOWN
Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnnie Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter and Tom Wilkinson
Studio: Walt Disney
Length: 2 Hrs 29 Min
John Reid accepts the word of law as gospel, despises violence and detests guns. He believes that justice should only ever be meted out in a courtroom and is returning to Texas to be his hometown’s new district attorney. Clumsy, prim and greener than Kermit the Frog, John is completely unprepared for what waits for him in Texas’ share of the shrinking American West, where all four corners of the fledgling United States are being united by the railroad and an uneasy peace exists between white settlers and what remains of the Comanche First Nation. John’s older brother Dan is a Texas Ranger and the two share a relationship complicated by more than just their difference in job and personality; John and Dan’s wife Rebecca were seriously involved before she married Dan. The two still share deep feelings for one another, despite Rebecca’s marriage and son. Following an ambush, John witnesses Dan’s grisly death at the hands of a bloodthirsty psychotic and is left for dead. Miraculously surviving and joined by Wendigo hunting Comanche Tonto, John Reid becomes the Lone Ranger to avenge his brother and bring those responsible to justice. The Lone Ranger is this summer’s big budget live action summer offering from Disney Studios and represents a huge gamble for the House of the Mouse, one they hope pays off big over the Fourth of July holiday and perhaps launches a lucrative new franchise for them a la Pirates of the Caribbean. Unfortunately for Disney though, The Lone Ranger has bomb written all over it.
Disney changed The Lone Ranger’s release date a number of times before settling on July 3rd, hoping to minimize competition for coveted holiday crowds (originally Disney wanted Ranger in theatres for May 2011). While changing release dates isn’t uncommon, changing them four or five times like Disney did rarely bodes well for a tent pole release. They reunited Depp with director Gore Verbinski and producer Gerry Bruckheimer in hopes to duplicate the wild success of the Pirates franchise (and Disney isn’t shy about using their Pirates credentials to promote Ranger). And make no mistake, they cram plenty of explosions, gun fights and Depp’s trademark quirkiness into The Lone Ranger’s two plus hours, including a climactic fight scene aboard a pair of moving trains that would have been a little more impressive if parts of it weren’t so over the top, some even bordering on ludicrous. Unfortunately, I doubt Ranger’s formula will share anywhere near the same level of success as Pirates.
The western genre is no longer the box office staple it once was. Gone are the days where any flick staring John Wayne in a cowboy hat could bring moviegoers out en masse. Even when it’s mashed up with other genres like sci-fi (Cowboys and Aliens, Serenity) the western fails to find appeal with wider audiences. Another thing working against Ranger is American audiences rarely like being confronted by their country’s bloody past (it’s why films, even critically acclaimed ones, about the 2003 invasion of Iraq are panned), and, to their credit, Disney doesn’t shy away from how brutally the Comanche and all indigenous peoples were treated by nineteenth century America. A film where one of the lead characters is a Comanche warrior looking to avenge the murder of his tribe (even one played by a Caucasian actor, more on that later) is bound to convince some Americans to give it a pass, especially on a holiday celebrating American independence and glory. A lot of the action feels formulaic-never a good sign for an action movie-and what little humour there is without Depp feels forced. Relative unknown Armie Hammer plays John Reid/the Lone Ranger but he lacks the screen presence to convincingly lead such a big budget action movie. His Ranger spends too much of the time bumbling around, depending on Tonto to save his life about three dozen times before he seemingly mans up. Ruth Wilson’s Rebecca is a strong independent woman forged in the American frontier. That is until the plot calls for her to become a screaming damsel in distress desperate for rescue. And while Fichtner does his absolute best, his portrayal of the villainous Butch Cavendish doesn’t exactly send chills up your spine (but even his lukewarm portrayal as one of Ranger’s chief bad guys overshadows Hammer’s tepid hero).
And then there’s Depp. Make no mistake, one of Ranger’s few highlights is watching Depp’s portrayal of Tonto, and he constructs the character much the same way he constructed Captain Jack Sparrow (his mimicking of Keith Richards had Disney execs running scared until Pirates of the Caribbean became an instant box office success), and he shoots to make Tonto an equal, not a sidekick or subordinate. And in truth, Tonto spends a large part of Ranger rescuing John Reid from his own stupidity and isn’t afraid to get in anyone’s face, whether it be lawman, outlaw, cavalry soldier or the Ranger’s himself. But there’s a lot of sensitivity surrounding casting a white actor to play a Native American character, especially given Hollywood’s history treating natives. For decades, “Indians” were the bad guys; blood thirsty savages who killed women and children in the night, eating their flesh raw for pure enjoyment. And even then, moviemakers used Hawaiian actors to play native characters. In a stroke of irony, one of the first actual natives to play an aboriginal character was Canadian actor Jay Silverheels, playing Tonto on The Lone Ranger TV show that aired on ABC in the 50’s. Still, could you imagine a white actor playing Django in Django Unchained? You get the idea.
What it all boils down to is The Lone Ranger is a vanilla, overlong action movie where a lot of the action itself is bland (but loud). Outside of Depp’s somewhat controversial caricature of the Comanche Tonto, the screen performances generally lack weight and conviction, though that isn’t always the actors fault since the script seems to want to leap from one train wreck to the next. And while you knew they were going to get the classic Lone Ranger theme in there at some point, it comes off as cheesy and trite. Disney gambled a lot on The Lone Ranger, but it doesn’t look like this time the Mouse’s House is going to win.