It could be that the Lone Ranger and Tonto characters were never meant to star in their own series of movies. I’m not at all familiar with the original radio show or the long-running television series that followed it, but I have seen the films inspired by both, and none of them have given me a reason to invest in the main characters. 1956’s The Lone Ranger and its 1958 sequel The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold, both starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, were made during such a cinematically innocent time that neither character was allowed be anything more than a western archetype. We had the dashing hero and his ethnically stereotypical sidekick – images lacking any real humanity. The infamous 1981 film The Legend of the Lone Ranger made more of an effort with Tonto, played by Michael Horse, but even then, his development was limited by genre conventions, and Klinton Spilsbury’s underwhelming approach to the title character didn’t do anyone any favors.
Now we have Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, and yet again, the main characters fail to completely engage the audience. It’s not so much that the filmmakers keep them stuck in the past. It’s more a matter of altering them to match the culture of the present; The Lone Ranger and Tonto, played by Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp respectively, are now less of a mystery-solving western duo and more of an odd-couple comedy team, bouncing one-liners and personality quirks off of each other in situations intended to be awkward. So rarely do they come off as heroes we can root for that it’s a wonder why the film was made at all. Even the Ranger’s horse, Silver (who isn’t named until the final scene), is made to be as strange as possible; we will see him drink bottles of booze of his own free will, lick scorpions off the Ranger’s face and crunch on them, sit on the branch of a tree, and defecate in full view of the audience, only for Hammer’s head to be dragged through the remains.
Depp has stated in interviews that he wanted Tonto to be a self-reliant character rather than a subservient sidekick. He succeeded in this regard, but there was an unfortunate trade-off; rather than a compelling representation of Native American culture, Tonto has been reduced to a half-mad vigilante caricature, always feeding crumbs to a dead raven sitting on his head while quietly seething in his hatred for the white men who slaughtered his tribe when he was only a child. His madness apparently carried into old age; the film is actually a series of extended flashback sequences, told from the perspective of a decrepit Tonto working at a carnival sideshow western exhibit in San Francisco in 1933. His listener is a boy no older than seven, who wears a mask very much like The Lone Ranger’s. How likely is it that an old man with bad posture and a limited vocabulary would be employed to stand all day as a diorama display?
Hammer doesn’t fare much better, and there’s more to it than his take on the title character, who’s not a heroic do-gooder so much as a half-hearted action typecast torn between his training as a lawyer and his burning desire to hunt down the man responsible for the death of his older brother. Hammer is a decent enough actor, as films such as The Social Network and J. Edgar have proven, but here, he seems ill at ease, as if he believed he wasn’t right for the role. If he can’t convince himself of his ability to play The Lone Ranger, how can he possibly convince an audience? Having to be just as jokey as Tonto only makes matters worse, with much of the humor stemming from the fact that the Ranger, whose given name is John Reid, assumes his new role reluctantly and without a clue as to how to properly behave. This is only halfway amusing to begin with. It doesn’t take long for it to become stale.
The majority of the plot takes place in Texas in the late 1860s. The Ranger’s origins have been altered, although not by much; Reid returns to Texas and is appointed by his brother (James Badge Dale) as a Texas Ranger, Reid and the Rangers are ambushed by a gang of outlaws, all Rangers except Reid are murdered, and Tonto rescues Reid when Silver, using his animal intuition, declares Reid to be a Spirit Walker. Tonto and Reid team up to bring to justice the man who did them both wrong, the hideously-scarred outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). In order to do so, Reid must hide his face behind a domino mask. A secondary plot involves Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a railroad tycoon with an evil scheme brewing, and Rebecca Reid (Ruth Wilson), the widow of Reid’s brother. There’s also a small role for Helena Bonham Carter, the overly powdered, one-legged madame of a local brothel. Her ivory prosthetic leg doubles as a shotgun.
Although several action sequences are featured, there are only two that could possibly explain the film’s estimated budget of $200 million. Both involve spectacular train wrecks, the kind we actually do want to look at. Although the first sequence is rather pointless, the second one, reserved for the climax, is exuberant fun, calling to mind the glorious heedlessness of an Indiana Jones film. This is the point at which Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” is seamlessly interwoven with Hans Zimmer’s original score, which is clichéd in all the right ways. If only the entire film had worked on this level. I cannot sit here and say that I hated The Lone Ranger, but I’ve seen four versions of the story now, and I have yet to be convinced by it. It has either been too innocent, too bland, or in the case of this new film, too intent to be marketable. There has to be some middle ground somewhere.