The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger ★★★

Disney might be the one of the biggest and most successful entities in the entertainment industry, but at the same time no studio throws up massive money-losing bombs quite as regularly as the house of mouse. Just in the last decade Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010), Mars Needs Moms (2011), John Carter (2012), Tomorrowland (2015), The BFG (2016), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), A Wrinkle in Time (2018) and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) all lost around US$100 million. And 2013's The Lone Ranger was another of these epic disasters, but unlike other films on that list, the movie itself is interesting, even if after watching it's also obvious why it wasn't a massive hit.

After their phenomenal success with the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (also Disney), the combination of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp were considered a sure-fire thing. And so while there was a studio intervention when the budget threatened to get seriously out of hand, no one ever seemed to consider whether a $250 million dollar western was a viable box office contender in 2013. Because after a brief revival in the early 1990s with Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994) and The Quick and the Dead (1995) the western genre once again faded away from the mainstream, indeed just a couple of years before The Lone Ranger came Cowboys and Aliens (2011), another megaflop from a director previously on a hot streak with with two A-list stars on board. (Of course in 2012 Quentin Tarantino made all the money with Django Unchained, but QT is essentially his own genre by this point, so his success doesn't really affect the argument that big money westerns are not a sure-fire bet.)

A lot has been made of Johnny Depp's portrayal of Tonto, he claims to have Native American blood and it's not for me to gainsay him, however while looking more like member of Gorgoroth or Watain than the popular conception of a Comanche warrior, this is a very sympathetic portrait of the plight suffered by native peoples under colonial expansion. Even though in the original Lone Ranger serials Tonto was very much the sidekick, Depp was the name actor, and his character is elevated to co-lead and is given almost as much screen time as Armie Hammer in the title role. Hammer has become a stronger screen presence since this, but one feels that he's perhaps better suited to lighter comedic roles such as in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Free Fire (2016), yet because of his good looks has been typecast as a leading man in the same way Ryan Reynolds was before he found his niche. The Lone Ranger definitely has some laughs, everything with the horse just killed, but a lot of the broader attempts at comedy don't really work, and they clash with the morose and downbeat tone the film is seeped with despite being, on the surface, a throwback boy's own adventure.

The emotional heart of the movie is not only the Indian wars but also how these were driven by greedy capitalists and a complicit government and military. There's a dark cynicism about the United States throughout, that as Scout Tafoya noted, is very reminiscent of another big budget revisionist western that failed both critically and commercially, Heaven's Gate (1980). Because his movies are unapologetically commercial rather than arthouse in orientation, Gore Verbinski will never be respected as such, yet he is one of the most underrated visual stylists in modern American cinema. His A Cure for Wellness (2016) is not the greatest horror film of all time, but it is arguably the most beautiful. There is some absolutely stunning imagery in The Lone Ranger, with many strikingly original shots and compositions, the screen sometimes seeming more like an Ansel Adams landscape such is their scale and grandeur. There are also a lot of visual and audio "tributes", particularly to the two icons of the western, John Ford with all the Monument Valley scenes being like The Searchers (1956) on steroids, and everything with the train and the evil business types as well as the murky morality being very Sergio Leone, particularly from his Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). There also look to be many tributes to Buster Keaton's landmark old west train movie, The General (1927).

Of course there are also the less loveable Verbinski trademarks present, such as the fact the movie is about 30 minutes too long, and that while some of the action scenes are wonderfully exciting, at times the cartoon physics and too-obvious green screen work break the immersion and reminds one of the limitations of CGI. The Lone Ranger might be a heavily qualified success if its aim was to deliver a revisionist western to the masses via cutting edge thrills, it just seemed after the critical thrashing the masses mostly stayed away. Given its long lineage from the early days of radio 80 years prior, one can't really call this "original", yet the movie has merits both on its own and as the sort of film you just don't expect Disney to be making. Of course it was quickly thrown on to that mouse-eared junk heap, but in my view unreservedly so, despite the very real problems I had with it. The Lone Ranger's heart was in the right place, it just had no head for business, and in today's world of blockbuster cinema that is a fatal and irredeemable flaw.

Nick liked these reviews