There’s a scene late in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger in which Rebecca Reid (Ruth Wilson) is bonked on the head by a large piece of coal in the middle of a heart-stopping runaway train sequence. The result of such an action (will her eyes roll back in her head in a dizzy, cartoonish manner? will she be maimed for life by the sharp rock? is there going to be more blood for us to deal with?) seems nothing short of entirely arbitrary. Anything could happen post-coal-bonking, and within the context of The Lone Ranger, that sort of thing isn’t exciting or fun or interesting, it’s distracting and unsettling. It’s also par for the course in a frighteningly (and just plain strangely) uneven attempt at a blockbuster outing.
While the criticism that a film is “uneven” is often a meaningless one (don’t all films have their ups and downs? their peaks and valleys?), The Lone Ranger is unavoidably, unabashedly, bizarrely uneven. It’s the only word for it. Tonally, the film seems entirely at war with itself – zinging between cheery hijinks and brutal violence, often within the same scene, and seemingly without any sense of pattern or placement. A PG-13 rating signals that the film is, at the very least, somewhat suitable for tweens, but The Lone Ranger has seemingly sneaked by the MPAA, because it’s one of the bloodiest and most brutal films of its rating in recent memory.
A man’s heart is eaten out of his (still beating) chest, a supporting character’s genital’s unfortunate run-in with a war rifle is casually mentioned, and an entire Native American tribe’s complete eradication is reflected on at length – and that’s not to say anything about the film’s consistent depictions of war violence – and yet, still, The Lone Ranger is deemed okay for the younger set. This would all be fine – amusing, actually – if the film didn’t also insist on interjecting plenty of goofy humor and funny sight gags in the middle of all the blood and guts.
The Lone Ranger simply doesn’t know what the hell it’s about and how it’s supposed to convey its existence to an audience. It’s bizarre. It’s just unbelievably bizarre.
Like most of the existing properties that Hollywood has chosen to reintroduce into popular culture, The Lone Ranger is an origin story. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a freshly minted Texas state attorney who is returning to his dusty hometown of Colby to begin his life as a true lawman. We know that John hasn’t been home in quite some time – to the point that his Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale) has already wed and had a son with John’s old sweetheart (Wilson) – but we never know exactly why he ditched the town (or, alternately, what happened to his parents or his relationship or why he’s initially so anti-gun). On John’s train home? The vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, already adept at playing evil, but here made up to look nothing short of repulsive at every turn), on his way to a hanging death, and Tonto (Depp), a strange Commanche warrior with a particular fondness for feeding the dead bird on his head. One stunning runaway train sequence (if The Lone Ranger knows how to do anything, it’s that) and a horseback jailbreak later, Cavendish is free. Oops!
The brothers Reid inevitably launch a posse to go after Cavendish and crew, which also inevitably ends badly. John swears to bring Cavendish to justice, puts on a leather mask and starts traipsing across the Texas desert on a convoluted, complicated, brutal, and bloody little odyssey. And this all goes without mentioning Helena Bonham Carter as a gun-legged pimp, Tom Wilkinson as a clearly-creepy-but-poorly-developed-as-such railroad tycoon, and the rest of Cavendish’s equal-parts-evil-and-clownish crew.
All of this is inexplicably told Princess Bride story-time-as-framing-device style by an aged Tonto to a young buck (a suitably big-eyed Mason Elston Cook) some decades on in a sort-of traveling circus (which Tonto appears in). Make no mistake – this particular framing device is bogglingly useless, seemingly only existing so that Depp can ham it up as old Tonto and pass off glaring plotholes as some side effect of his shoddy storytelling. It should have been excised from the film months ago. No one should even know it was even considered for inclusion in the film. It’s that bad.
Depp is otherwise fine in the younger Tonto role – despite his outside-man get-up (one that the film tries to reason away by telling his own origin story, which serves to both upset the audience and remind them that they still have no idea where the hell John Reid came from), he’s less over-the-top and hamtastic than we’ve come to expect from him.
Hammer appears to be the only person on set who bothered to have a good time, making his John Reid a bit of a doof and his Lone Ranger fittingly uncomfortable and then unexpectedly enthused by his new life. The pair has passable chemistry together, the kind that would have surely benefitted by loosening the reins on the project and allowing it to be the goofy good time it is in sadly fleeting moments.
Instead, The Lone Ranger attempts to cater to all tastes, the violent and the funny, the serious and the amusing, and falls spectacularly (and, again, bizarrely) flat in the process.
The Upside: Occasionally amusing turns by both Hammer and Depp, beautiful scenery, totally cool horses, two unstoppably amazing long-form runaway train sequences.
The Downside: An unshakably uneven tone that dominates every element of and performance in the film, a shockingly useless framing story, an overly complicated screenplay that’s still laced with holes, is far too violent for its own good.
On the Side: The original Lone Ranger radio show spun-off into The Green Hornet radio show, and Tom Wilkinson has appeared in modern movie reboots of both.