Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Lone Ranger

Review by Pete Roche

Ta-da-dump!  Ta-da-dump!  Ta-da-dump-dump-dump!

Yes, the triumphant, galloping finale from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” features in THE LONE RANGER.  And the titular hero, played by Armie Hammer (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, MIRROR MIRROR), wears a white Stetson and bandit mask, and favors silver bullets.

But director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer—who updated the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN mythology for modern audiences—re-imagine just about all other aspects of the iconic western hero in the new Walt Disney film.

Hammer is John Reid, an idealistic young county prosecutor who gets caught up in a jailbreak by gunslinger Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and rogue Comanche Indian Tonto (Johnny Depp) while returning from the big city.  John is deputized by his Texas Ranger brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), gifted his father’s badge, and recruited for a posse to track Cavendish’s gang into the canyons.  The first of several double-crosses results in an ambush that leaves the Reid brothers bleeding to death in the hot sun. 

Tonto stumbles upon the fallen rangers and—having witnessed Dan’s bravery earlier—hopes to revive the elder Reid.  But a wandering white “spirit horse” has other ideas and designates John for mystical resuscitation as a virtually indestructible “spirit walker” tasked with seeking justice for Cavendish’s crimes.  Tonto provides John with a mask swathed from the leather in brother Dan’s vest and advises him to wear it at all times; his quest will be easier if the villains think he’s dead.    

Tonto has his own reasons for teaming with John.  He wants the “lone ranger” to help him avenge his tribe, decimated years ago by a pair of money-hungry white men.  Tonto’s something of a loner, too, like John, and has a habit of taking advice from the dead crow doubling as his hat.  He claims he’s a “wendigo hunter,” a chaser of evil spirits, and harbors a healthy respect for Mother Nature.  But he’s eccentric even by Comanche standards.  Tonto's fond of trading—with the living or dead—bartering objects like chicken feet and pocket watches for other necessary items.  And he’s convinced the “spirit horse” erred in selecting his new ke-mo-sah-bee.

John and Tonto strike a tenuous, buddy-movie sort of alliance and trace Cavendish back to the homestead of Dan’s widow, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), who had a thing for John before he left town for law school.  Rebecca’s gone missing, along with her young son, and all signs point to an Indian abduction.  Tonto isn’t so sure. 

The heroes’ investigation / rescue mission leads them to a clandestine silver-mining operation deep in the hills, where the craggy-faced Cavendish has enlisted Chinese railroad workers to unearth his treasure.  The baddy’s made it appear as if the Comanches are to blame for the local atrocities, prompting a battle between the cavalry and the remnants of Tonto’s former tribe.  John and Tonto must stop Cavendish if they’re to acquit the Indians and prevent all-out war on the eve of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.     

Hammer is a competent Ranger who dispenses with the prim-and-proper language of Clayton Moore’s old serial star but retains his values—his chivalry and morality.  He won’t kill if he doesn’t have to and insists on (literally) dragging murderers to town hall for trial rather than engage in the summary executions common to the Wild West.  John doesn’t put any stock in Tonto’s “spirit walker” nonsense until much later, when serendipity (and lucky shooting) makes clear he must be the benefactor of supernatural protection.  Consequently, he spends the first half of the picture getting bailed out of trouble instead of playing savior Shane to others.  So when the Ranger’s trusty steed finally rears on its hind legs and Hans Zimmer’s take on the “Overture” trumpets over the speakers, it’s truly exhilarating. 

Gone is Moore’s blue work shirt, replaced by a slick black blazer and matching pants, but the Ranger’s impeccable aim—and “High-ho, Silver, away!” catchphrase are intact, and Hammer’s Ranger handles lassos  with the dexterity of Indiana Jones cracking a bullwhip.      

Tonto (the name is Spanish for “foolish”) isn’t a stretch for Depp, who imbues the oddball Indian with the same body rhythms and furtive eye movements as his plucky CARIBBEAN pirate, Jack Sparrow.  Likewise, face paint is par for the actor, who underwent similar makeup metamorphoses for EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.  Given his gift for nuance (and his prior work with director Verbinski on PIRATES and RANGO), Depp must have breezed through the picture, which is Tonto’s tale to tell anyway (and he does, decades later, his frail, “Noble Savage” carnie narrating to a curious kid in 1930’s San Francisco).  He speaks an advanced pidgin, and his portrayal didn't strike this reviewer as potentially offensive to Native Americans.

Then again, I'm not a Native American. 

What is rather amazing—and completely obscured onscreen beneath Depp’s costume, precision humor, and seemingly effortless physicality—is that Depp, 50, is twice Hammer’s age. 

The story is bookended by a pair of spectacular train chases, with some beats inspired by myriad other movies with steam engines.  A damsel dangles from a runaway engine like Mary Steenburgen in BACK TO THE FUTURE III, and it takes a second to remind oneself that Marty McFly won’t be showing up with his hoverboard.  Another choo-choo goes sailing off a bridge, a la TOY STORY 3, and several titanic TNT blasts recall the epic explosions from BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI and FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE.  Your kids won’t remember any of those, but twenty-somethings may recall Owen Wilson’s cowboy getting buried up to his neck in SHANGHAI NOON.  That happens again here.          

The film is a hard PG-13.  Children over 10 can probably stomach the intense action sequences, but younger views might be disturbed by the violence (or its implication).  There’s hanging, rampant gunfire (one man faces a firing squad), repeated blows to the head by shovels, and a bloody evisceration with a bowie knife.  There’s also a bit of sexual innuendo:  Helena Bonham Carter plays a brothel madam who invites lusty onlookers to touch her custom ivory prosthetic leg.   2 ½ stars out of 4.

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