How rare it is to witness the situation that The Lone Ranger forces me into.
I’m put into the position of having to champion the work of a studio, Disney, whose work normally alienates me, with a lead star, Johnny Depp, whose idiosyncratic overload bores me these days. To help matters none, it’s based on a source material famous enough to be profitable yet hokey enough to laughable, and whose reception, both financially and critically, landed with a thud on par with the likes of historic ‘fiascos’ Heaven’s Gate and 1941. (I count both among my very favorite films, but that’s another conversation.)
This is a summer where blockbusters have essentially pummeled us into submission. As much as I may have liked some of them, there’s no denying that the likes of Fast & Furious 6 and Pacific Rim essentially proclaim “ENJOY ME! ENJOY ME!” with their complete sensory overload. It seems to me that among this onslaught, critics such as myself have been quick to impugn the motives of the season’s crop. It is evident that many films exist to create the money and (more importantly) the obligation for more films. But The Lone Ranger is no soulless, corporate machination — in fact, it may be the most rousing, genuinely interesting blockbuster of the year.
Director Gore Verbinski has carved out his own unique niche: that of the blockbuster auteur. First he managed to crank out a trilogy that was somehow both overexposed and wildly underrated (Pirates of the Caribbean), then picked up an Oscar for Rango, a wild, animated, Hunter S. Thompson-influenced acid-trip Western. With The Lone Ranger Verbinski assimilates all the best qualities of these films (grandiose, inventive set-pieces, strong emphasis on character, go-for-broke visual splendor), picks up a few of the less favorable (laborious length, a few too many side characters) and yet carves out an identity and social consciousness all its own.
Pacific Rim aside, the blockbuster crop this year seems almost hell-bent on asserting vanilla-white characters (racially and literally) as the ultimate protector and hero figure. So to see a $225 million project that casts a Comanche Native American as lead hero, dares question the massive human cost of 19th century expansionism AND spends a significant portion of time dwelling on the mass slaughter of indigenous cultures at the hands of our great “adventurer” forefathers? You’re damn straight I’m more engaged by this than the new Adam Sandler/Kevin James shit-show. The Lone Ranger is thoughtful and reflective while at the same time pushing ever-forward in its giddy, child-like momentum, from set-piece to set-piece to set-piece. It goes on far too long, sure, but the central meat of the film is so engaging to me that it’d be foolish to let length sink it. And what is that meat, you ask?
Well, sure, the film is totally preoccupied with the themes I’ve stated prior: desecration of Native American cultures over time and the impact of the ever-encroaching railroad, mostly. But at its heart, too, it’s also a really goofy buddy comedy, with Johnny Depp’s Tonto and Armie Hammer’s clumsy lawyer-turned-crimefighter John Reid as the central duo. These two have both strong chemistry and individual rhythms of their own. Depp never caves into the self-conscious showboating he’s taken to with Alice in Wonderland and Pirates 4, and Armie Hammer continues his streak as one of the most likable, assertive male presences in movies today. Given that the movie is 150 minutes, however, it certainly takes a while for the whole ‘buddy’ dynamic to fully kick in.
I’m ignoring the elephant(s) in the room, naturally. The train sequences in The Lone Ranger, maaaan.
The film begins and ends with extended chase sequences aboard moving, speeding trains. It is to the film’s credit that, even if they weren’t achieved practically (I have no idea), it feels that way. These sequences move, crunch, and squeak with the impact of real, tangible machines and humans aboard. And regarding the grand finale of The Lone Ranger: I am telling you now, this sequence is an instant, stone-cold, MASTERPIECE of action filmmaking. The film’s reputation is fairly soiled for now but, my god, if nothing else I pray this scene finds its audience in the future.
Gore Verbinski, with The Lone Ranger, has taken the structure and body of a Western classic and infused it with unmistakably modern message and mindset. It’s maddening to me how misunderstood this movie already is. It’s no masterpiece but, in its rambling overflow of sensibilities and ideas, it damn well wants to be. And I struggle to find another film even remotely like it.