The Lone Ranger is Bloated, Messy Fun
In talking with Paul Kupperberg last week, he noted that it was difficult for him to write The Lone Ranger for Moonstone’s prose anthology because the character was so vanilla. After all, Fran Stryker saw him as the perfect role model for the families listening to the radio drama, first on WXYZ and then coast to coast via ABC. Stryker and radio president George W. Trendle then added a series of rules about the world the Ranger inhabited that divorced it from the reality of the western frontier of the previous century.
But today, people don’t want one-dimensional role models, they want deeper characterizations. It’s also thought people don’t want modern day version of classic characters from an earlier era, possibly explaining why adaptations of The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Phantom, and now The Lone Ranger have fared poorly over the last 20 years. If true, this does not bode well for Shane Black’s attempt to make Doc Savage.
The radio program first aired in January 1933 and ran for 2956 episodes, spawning comic books, comic strips, Big Little Books, movie serials and the long-running 1950s television series. As a feature film, the masked rider has fared less well with the 1981 bomb the last time anyone tried. Therefore, the first task Walt Disney had before it was reintroducing the characters to its audience before the movie opened last week. After neglecting to do that last year with John Carter, one would have thought they would have learned from their error.
The movie opened and was savaged by critics, smelling blood from the over-the-top trailers that emphasized Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto. Considered a revisionist take on the characters, they focused more on the production woes, script rewrites and mammoth $250 million budget that saw Disney actually cancel the project once before the budget was reined in.
The film is bloated, messy, and fun. I liked it far better than I expected to, especially in the wake of the scathing commentary. Director Gore Verbinski reteamed with his Pirates of the Caribbean star and screenwriters so it is too easily dismissed as Pirates 4.5. The film stands on its own but it needed some help.
The film is framed by a sequence set, not so coincidentally, in 1933 as an aged Tonto is now a carnival sideshow attraction and tells a young masked boy the “true” story of how the Ranger came to be. That didn’t really add anything and could easily have been excised to tighten the running time.
Since most don’t know the origin, unlike Superman, it needed telling. Cavendish’s boys ambush the Rangers and John is left for dead. The changes, though, are interesting in that John is just back from law school in the East and feels the letter of the law is paramount where his brother is a lawman meting out justice. This is a theme that is never properly developed or explored, robbing the story of its core.
That both men love the same woman is a more modern day interpretation, first introduced, I believe, by Matt Wagner in the excellent Dynamite Comics adaptation. Bu she is part of the mythos, raising her son Dan, who would grow up to farther Brit, who would carry on the family business as the Green Hornet (foreshadowing this could have been fun).
Tonto is woven earlier into the story, setting him up to meet Cavendish and Reid from the outset but his backstory is entirely unique to this interpretation. On the radio series, he was said to be a Potawatomi which was inaccurate given the geography so the film makes him a Comanche. His backstory is never clear in the original radio drama, with two origins provided. Here, his story is a tragic one, entwining him, Reid, and Cavendish. This is a modern dramatic trick that is common and also unnecessary but somehow it has become mandatory in these genre offerings.
Depp’s Tonto is an outcast from society, a man without a nation, but with skills and a drive for revenge. His solitary nature is the cause for his quirky ways but he does not do enough to distinguish this character from Captain Jack Sparrow which undermines the character. Similarly, Armie Hammer’s John Reid is overly naïve and played too often as a comic simpleton despite having been raised on the frontier. There are hints of a more interesting character, but the screenwriters do not appear interested in giving the actor anything to work with.
The action is all over the place as Cavendish (William Fichtner) proves tough to capture and keep. His exact motivations remain murky unlike the evil railway man Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who is out to run the trains through Comanche territory and get rich from a silver mine deep within their land. He is fond of Rebecca Reid (Ruth Wilson) and her son Dan (Bryant Prince) so keeps them close. Helena Bonham Carter’s character is extraneous and adds little to the story so should have been snipped out. There’s an opening sequence involving a train that is large so the climax with two trains has to be even bigger and while Verbinski is visually imaginative, it also staggers credulity and is excessive.
There are story logic gaps and the tone continues to shift between drama and quirky humor so when we get to an Army versus Native American fight, it feels out of place and totally unnecessary. The slaughter of so many Natives is never really handled right here, which is wrong for a film about law and justice. The writers really botched this and it comes late enough in the film to leave a sour taste.
We get the trappings of the Ranger legend, largely accurately taken from the radio series such as Cavendish, the silver mine, Silver the horse (who steals every scene he is in), and the mask made from Dan Reid’s vest. The William Tell Overture is nicely woven into the wonderful Hans Zimmer score and there are some truly heroic images as the Ranger rides into action.
All that is missing is the great Fred Foy’s opening narration:
“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver! The Lone Ranger! … With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States! Nowhere in the pages of History can one find a greater champion of justice! Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear! From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!”
The movie is far better than the critics will tell you. A summer popcorn extravaganza that could and should have been tighter and better.