For more than a century the movies have been telling us the story of America through westerns, and each decade gets the version it deserves. We have seen films range from the optimistic, heroic, and racially insensitive movies of the 40’s (“Destry Rides Again,” “My Darling Clementine”) to the more politically metaphoric movies of the cold war era (“High Noon,” “The Ox-Bow Incident”) to the subversive 60’s (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Cat Ballou”), to the bleakness of spaghetti westerns and the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven.”
And now, 110 years after Edwin S. Porter’s “Great Train Robbery” (considered the first movie western), we get an update on the radio show-turned television series-turned forgettable 1981 movie version starring model-almost-turned-actor Klinton Spilsbury and Michael Horse, “The Lone Ranger.” And it is indeed a reflection on the era of Citizens United and squestration. It is the very essence of soulless corporate excess and celebrity self-regard.
The folks behind “Pirates of the Caribbean” have reunited for a reboot of “The Lone Ranger,” but this is more like the overstuffed sequels than the fresh and charming original. Everything is out of balance in this bloated two and a half-hour endurance challenge. The worst part is that pared down to lose 40 minutes or so of filler, this could be a nice little action movie. It has the key ingredients: a story and characters that have stood the test of time, inventive and absorbing action sequences, and talented performers. Unfortunately, it is hard to find any of that in the midst of all of the bombast and overkill and tooooo many cooks.
It is now well known that Depp became a superstar with his performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates” movies, a performance of such quirk and weirdness that it completely freaked out the suits. So of course now, with him as producer, they let him do whatever he wanted for the character of Tonto, including spending the entire movie with his face completely painted and wearing a dead crow on his head, inspired by a picture he saw. This is when the suits should have stepped in. Instead they were enablers, allowing the quirks to become distracting and unpleasant. That is especially true in a completely unnecessary framing story set in 1933, with Depp in old man make-up appearing in an old west display, telling a little kid dressed as the Lone Ranger his story.
Armie Hammer does his best in a thankless role. His John Reid is part James Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (bookish lawyer who wants to bring Lockeian notions of a civil society to the west), part doofus. He isn’t as smart as Tonto or the villains, which is fine, but he isn’t as smart as his horse, either. He isn’t as smart as the blanket under his saddle, except when he is, or when he is called upon to do crazy stunts like racing the snow-white “spirit horse” across the top of a racing train, shooting his gun as he goes. He is a fine actor with a strong screen presence and he is clearly game. He deserves better.
The many, many references to other movies seem like crutches, not tributes. The many, many anachronisms are sloppy and show contempt for the audience, not meta-commentary. People in 1869 did not say “Let’s do this.” They did not eat hot dogs in buns with ketchup. The “Star Spangled Banner” did not become the national anthem until 1931. There was no such thing as “health code violations” in a bar — or a house of prostitution. And the all-purpose conspiracy that has the military, a hostile takeover, and an outlaw feels desperate and generic. Any commentary on today’s economic and political woes is purely coincidental.
The real commentary on the failures of capitalism is in spending $250 million of the Disney shareholders’ money on this uninspired vanity project.
Parents should know that this film has intense and graphic violence for a PG-13. A villain literally eats the heart of a man he has murdered and there is massive slaughter, with many characters injured and killed. There are prostitutes, a cross-dresser, bathroom humor, some alcohol, and mild language.
Family discussion: Why did Tonto feed the crow? Why was trading so important to him? Read the Lone Ranger’s creed and discuss how it applies to your life.
If you like this, try: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Silverado,” “Cat Ballou,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”