There is something inherently disappointing about going to a heavily hyped summer film and leaving the theater with a less than ecstatic feeling.
Every year, every studio bets heavily on a handful of "tent-pole" releases - films with huge budgets north of $100 million (although $200 million is becoming more common), special effects from beginning to end and male leads ready to prove they are worthy of their $20 million paychecks. As with any bet, there will be winners and losers. If they win, the inevitable sequels have built in promotion and they will continue to generate revenue for years to come.
But if they lose…
Gore Verbinski's "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer ("J. Edgar", "The Social Network"), Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner (lots of TV work, currently on NBC's "Crossing Lines") and Helena Bonham Carter is the Disney Studios' big gamble for 2013. Narratively, the film is good, but the built up anticipation makes it feel like a loss. Financially, the film is already labeled a dud and it is a film Disney is already trying to overcome. Don't expect any "Lone Ranger" attractions at any of the Disney parks.
Johnny Depp has made a career of playing strange, over-the-top characters. He does them well, providing interesting performances, even when the film doesn't measure up. But in the last few years, this type of character seems to be all he does and the public is growing less interested; his last few films have flopped. I am personally growing tired of the strange, heavily made-up characters that seem to have become the actor's stock and trade. I know he gets huge paychecks for these films (reportedly $40 million for the last "Pirates" film), but he would be well served by taking a less-showy role, allowing him to show off his acting chops.
The unusual aspects of his characters also seem to permeate the few more normal roles he has recently done. In Michael Mann's "Public Enemies", he played a gangster who seems crazier than was probably necessary. "The Tourist" is an interesting idea, but it doesn't work either. "The Rum Diary" was a spectacular failure; no one seemed interested in Depp's return as Hunter Thompson. And let's face it, if there is a human being similar to any of the strange characters Depp plays, it is Thompson.
Unfortunately, it looks like we can expect more of the same. Depp already had "Pirates 5" lined up before this film was released. But when it quickly became apparent "Ranger" was a flop, Depp's people went into hyperdrive and lined up "Through the Looking Glass", the sequel to "Alice in Wonderland". These are exactly the types of roles Depp should be staying away from.
In "The Lone Ranger", Depp plays Tonto, a Comanche Indian who seems very involved in the story from the beginning. He is being held prisoner in the same rail car with Butch Cavendish (Fichtner), a notorious outlaw who according to legend eats the still-beating hearts of his victims. When Cavendish escapes, Tonto quickly gets free and never seems to be far behind the outlaw. John Reid (Hammer), an idealistic lawyer returning to rural Texas to start his new practice, joins his brother Adam (James Badge Dale) in a posse. The posse is quickly ambushed and Tonto rescues John, encouraging him to become the Masked Man. A Masked Man will be able to more easily extract revenge for both of them.
There is a definite attempt to make this a more PC-appropriate portrait of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Basically, Tonto seems to be the brains, molding and shaping Reid into his personal vigilante. My problem with this setup comes from Hammer's portrayal of Reid as a buffoon. Early on, Reid is full of himself; confident he can make a change in the Wild West by simply sticking to his idealism and ignoring the reality of his new environment. As he morphs into the Lone Ranger, he continues to make dumb decisions and more often than not, his simple dumb luck seems to help him persevere.
As this character trait continues, a couple of things happen. Reid doesn't change a lot, which makes him less interesting. It also shows us that Tonto seems to regard his partner as a buffoon illustrating the fact they don't really like one another. Which leads to the question: why should we care about them if they don't care about each other?
The most successful aspect of the film is the storytelling device. A young boy walks into a Wild West Show at a San Francisco carnival in 1933. As the boy, wearing a Lone Ranger outfit, wanders through the displays, he stops to look at the "Noble Savage" and is startled when the statue's eyes begin to move. The elderly Tonto begins to relate the story of the origins of the legend. While it may seem strange to have a human being, let alone a Native American, working as a human mannequin, this helps to spin and sell the tall-tale aspect of the film. The young boy could be imagining the conversation with the elderly Tonto; he probably is, because he stops the story a few times when Tonto's narrative becomes too outlandish.
Verbinski and the writers (all of whom created the "Pirates" films) don't do a very good job of hiding a potential plot twist. As soon as a character makes an appearance, you know he or she will be revealed as something else all together, making this moment pointless.
The best aspect of the film is the action; Verbinski clearly has a lot of fun playing with his toys. There are a number of lengthy, complicated action sequences involving or set on trains. At one point, Depp's Tonto jumps and swings back and forth between two moving trains. Depp's stone face and the nature of the stunts instantly brought to mind the great silent comedian Buster Keaton. Given Depp's well-documented admiration for Keaton, the similarity is not a mistake. It's nice work and it is well done.
Less interesting is the pacing of the film. At 149 minutes, it is too long and despite all of the narrative and action, it seems to drag. The filmmakers depict the lengthy backstory of both the Lone Ranger and Tonto, which is a big mistake. The backstories and the framing device seem to slow down a film packed with elaborate, fun action scenes. It would have made sense to save one of these stories for the sequel, and concentrate on just one of the characters in this film. I suspect that because Depp is the star, the draw, and he is playing the non-title character, the filmmakers included both to make Depp's performance viable. It was a bad decision made because a lot of money is at stake,
There is an impressive collection of character actors involved in the film. In addition to Wilkinson and Fichtner, James Badge Dale, Leon Rippy, Barry Pepper and others are all naturals for a big, all-out Western. Even James Frain, a popular British actor who has appeared in "Tron: Legacy", "True Blood" and many other films and television shows, pops up as one of Cavendish's henchmen in a role that can barely be labeled a cameo. It is nice to see all of these actors in roles that are a natural fit. Their appearances make the landscape feel more real and viable.
Much like Depp, Helena Bonham–Carter has been hiding behind elaborate, over-the-top characters and too much makeup for a long time. Maybe both have been hanging around Tim Burton for too long, but we'll save that for another review. In "Ranger", Bonham–Carter plays Red Harrington, the red-haired madam of a whorehouse. But she is no ordinary madam; she has a porcelain leg with special features. The porcelain leg is strange and unusual. We don't know why she has it, so it just becomes an unexplained oddity.
Normally, I would focus on the good parts of a movie and then discuss any bad moments. For this movie, it was necessary to skip back and forth. "The Lone Ranger" is the very definition of a mixed bag, with both good and bad, making it difficult to clearly differentiate between the two. And, ultimately, this makes the film a bit of a wash.
Sign on for the next Woody Allen film, the next Derek Cianfrance film, the next Nicholas Winding Refn film. Take a pay cut and do a performance that makes people remember your acting ability and not your ability to play dress up.