The Lone Ranger: Lost in a Western Myth

Johnny Depp is Tonto and Armie Hammer his kemo sabe in this overly ambitious tribute to the vanished art of the sagebrush saga

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Peter Mountain / Disney

Johnny Depp loves westerns. He starred in Jim Jarmusch’s corpse opera Dead Man in 1995, and made his directorial debut two years later with The Brave, a surpassingly weird modern sagebrush saga in which he played a luckless American Indian who agrees to appear in a snuff film produced by Marlon Brando. In 2011, Depp teamed with Gore Verbinski, his director on the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for the animated feature Rango, a tribute to every oater about a stranger who wanders into a threatening western town — except that this Man With No Name is a lizard. “I think the western has been hiding a bit,” Verbinski told TIME. “The Pirates movies were westerns, Star Wars is a western. It’s nice to see it in the West again.”

The West looks mighty handsome in The Lone Ranger, the latest Depp-Verbinski tribute to a genre that dominated Hollywood for decades, then died out when Star Wars and other action pictures transported sheriffs and shoot-’em-ups to Fantasy Land. Filmed in scenic New Mexico, with side trips to Utah’s Monument Valley, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly and Colorado’s Durango, The Lone Ranger revels in the actual (as opposed to virtual) grandeur of an arid land worth fighting for. Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer behind the Pirates movies, made sure that all of Disney’s $250 million investment is on the screen. Having sired a bunch of Hollywood franchises (Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, National Treasure), Bruckheimer is hoping this can pick up where the others left off.

(MORE: Corliss Reviews the first Pirates of the Caribbean Movie — the Good One)

The movie is deeply indebted to three great films set during or just after the Civil War: John Ford’s The Searchers (a man’s quest for his brother’s killer in Indian lands), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (the coming of the transcontinental railroad) and Buster Keaton’s The General (the climactic train chase). A framing story, set 60 years later in San Francisco, pays unacknowledged tribute to Arthur Penn’s Vietnam-era revisionist western Little Big Man. And although the Hans Zimmer score contains so many airs from Ennio Morricone’s themes for the Leone westerns that it comes close to copyright infringement, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of pilfering. If you’re going to steal, why not from the best?

Scripted by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe, The Lone Ranger wants to be the apotheosis of every durned western ever made. Aside from the Masked Man and Tonto, played by Armie Hammer and Depp, respectively, the movie corrals the whole Tombstone contingent: a flinty sheriff (James Badge Dale), the scurvy villain Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a railroad baron of dubious intent (Tom Wilkinson), a U.S. Cavalry officer (Barry Pepper), a winsome widow (Ruth Wilson) and a bordello madam (Helena Bonham Carter) with a gun concealed in her ivory leg. Finding scenes and plot strands to accommodate this crowd stretches the running or ambling time to nearly two-and-a-half hours, and lays bare The Lone Ranger’s secret sins: it’s got too much on its mind, and it’s unsure of its tone. This is the rough cut of a slimmer, better movie.

(MORE: Why Rango Was the Best Animated Feature of 2011)

Fran Striker’s 1933 Lone Ranger radio drama spawned two late-’30s cliffhanger serials directed by William Witney and John English, plus the 1949–57 TV show, starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, familiar to kids who are now eligible for Social Security. But unlike Superman and Batman, two other heroes from 1930s pulp culture, the do-gooding John Reid — the Lone Ranger — didn’t secure an honored place in the pop-mythology pantheon. If any questions still stir about the character, they would be: 1) Why is he the lone Ranger? 2) What is the reason for his mask? 3) Why is his horse called Silver? 4) What is the significance of the silver bullet? 5) How did he meet Tonto? 6) Isn’t Tonto Spanish for stupid? 7) What does Tonto’s familiar phrase “kemo sabe” mean? And 8) What’s that theme song again?

(Fast answers, which may require a SPOILER ALERT for those not up on their L.R. lore: 1) Because John Reid was deputized into a Texas Rangers contingent whose other members died. 2) To conceal his identity from those who knew Reid. 3) Because the horse is silver-white. 4) A symbol of justice. 5) In the radio series, the TV show and this movie, Tonto saved Reid’s life when the Rangers were ambushed by Cavendish. 6) As the new movie suggests, it’s complicated. 7) In the radio show, “scout”; in the movie, “wrong brother.” 8) Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture.)

(MORE: A TIME Gallery of Famous People Who Have Worn Masks)

Narrated (for no particular reason except to make a long movie even longer) by an aged Tonto to a kid in a Lone Ranger mask, the movie proposes that its leading man is a well-meaning oaf with no sense of hero couture. When at Tonto’s insistence he dons the mask, he asks, like a self-conscious actor forced to wear jester’s garb, “You sure this works?” He also seems not to know that the Lone Ranger is supposed to have a partner: several times he leaves for dead the Indian who has saved his life. Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and Snow White’s Prince Charming in Mirror Mirror, is pretty but not prepossessing — good-looking in a soap-opera-actor way, without seizing the screen. He’s all hunk, no cattle.

Really, this Lone Ranger is Tonto’s stooge. So Depp, his face chalked up in Indian daubs (based on Kirby Sattler’s painting I Am Crow), gets the job of cluing modern audiences into the Lone Ranger legend and, for that matter, the meaning of westerns. To the image of the taciturn Indian he applies the comic solemnity of Keaton, the silent cinema’s Great Stone Face, whom Depp explicitly revered back in 1993’s Benny & Joon. He has long been a master of what might be called the overplaying of underplaying — that blank, sometimes sodden stare that surveys the world’s awful idiocies and says, “If I expressed what I really felt, I’d always be screaming.” It’s an act of subversion that can also wink at audiences with a sense of complicity in their discomfort at a not-so-hot movie.

(MORE: A Tribute to Buster Keaton)

Depp’s classical-modernist take works for about an hour, until The Long Ranger wanders into many variations of plot quicksand that confuse viewers about what kind of movie they’re watching. We know that the town burgher is a corporate villain; when asked what he could buy with all his loot, he replies, “A country. A great country.” But the varmint outlaw who carves out and devours his victim’s heart — is that one of the funny parts? And the brief appearance of a horde of animated killer rabbits — perhaps an outtake from Rango?

After a while you need a diagram to keep track of the shifting tones: gentle homage or up-to-date political correctness; cannibal violence or the light, smirky touch of the Pirates series. This need to both embrace and ironize so many western clichés sends the project stumbling, until it falls flat on its facetiousness. So The Lone Ranger is likely to join the list of Bruckheimer wannabe franchises like Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

(MORE: Corliss on Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)

Even if it worked, the movie probably wouldn’t connect with the worldwide mass of moviegoers because … it’s a western. The films that have borrowed from that genre were smart enough to add space ships, giant monsters and a palette more colorful than Monument Valley brown. At least Verbinski’s picture fails not from caution but from ambition — a missed attempt at the magnificent. Like a stuntman doing a swan dive off a high butte in some glorious old John Ford movie, The Lone Ranger falls from a great height.