Disney’s The Lone Ranger follows the origins of the masked rider, John Reid (Armie Hammer), and the events that lead him to become a symbol of justice in the Old West. After completing a law degree, Reid returns to his hometown, Colby, Texas, to become the city’s government prosecutor and hold criminals accountable under United States law (along with a firm commitment to John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”). However, when his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), is murdered in cold blood by ruthless outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) Reid realizes that some criminals operate above of the law and he turns to a different form of justice as a masked vigilante.
As a tenuous peace between the Native American tribes and white settlers is threatened, the Lone Ranger must join forces with a heroic, though slightly offbeat, Comanche warrior, Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has spent years hunting Cavendish. Together, Reid and Tonto set out on a mission to investigate the circumstances that led to Dan’s death before more blood is spilled.
In an effort to re-imagine the Lone Ranger as a modern blockbuster franchise, Disney turned to the team behind their highly-successful Pirates of the Caribbean series, including producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, along with star Johnny Depp. Unfortunately, despite a number of strong individual components, the final Lone Ranger movie experience misses the bar (and longterm promise) established in the first Pirates of the Caribbean installment. For many audience members, Verbinski’s latest will likely succeed in delivering mindless summer entertainment with a number of humorous character moments, a quirky (albeit familiar) performance from Depp, and an elaborate third act set-piece. Yet, for all of the film’s successes, most of the core story arcs and action beats are either derivative or underwhelming – misguided in attempts to piece together a blockbuster experience out of well-known parts.
Considering their have been countless variations to the Lone Ranger character over the years, it’s no surprise that the new film takes plenty of liberties with its origin story setup, especially as it pertains to the relationship between Reid and Tonto. Whereas the plot succeeds as a motor for the larger film progression, providing a believable enough foundation for the main characters (and the enemies they encounter), it under-delivers in attempts to say anything particularly new or interesting about the iconic figures. Worse yet, the movie introduces several compelling ideas (“Nature is out of balance” for example) only to entirely abandon them without worthwhile answers or narrative payoff. As a result, in lieu of delivering the “best” Lone Ranger story in franchise history (via an engaging exploration of fan-favorite characters and the larger Western world), Verbinski’s adventure is relegated to simply being the “biggest” (and most expensive).
Armie Hammer (who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) stars in the film as John Reid aka the Lone Ranger, and delivers a competent performance relative to the ambitions of the overarching film. Hammer succeeds in balancing campy one-liners with believable fisticuffs but, thanks to a heavy-handed origin story script, his character spends much of the film whining and bumbling from one dangerous situation to the next. A sequel could allow for a more capable (and exciting) version of the masked rider to shine but Hammer’s first attempt as the Lone Ranger, and alter-ego John Reid, is ultimately a bland variation on similar masked vigilante stories (tales that audiences will have already seen onscreen countless times before).
Equally well known performers provide competent, but not particularly distinctive, additions: including Tom Wilkinson as railroad magnate Latham Cole, Barry Pepper as military officer Captain Jay Fuller, and Ruth Wilson as Dan’s wife, Rebecca Reid. William Fichtner provides an especially creepy performance as the ruthless Butch Cavendish but, despite early indications that the film might do something interesting with the character (likely a holdover from the original supernatural draft of the film), any subtleties turn to disappointing caricature by the end.
As mentioned, Johnny Depp is comfortable in the quirky moccasins of the Comanche sidekick and, for that reason, it’s no surprise that Hammer’s Lone Ranger is sidelined to vanilla everyman duty. It’s a telling sign when scenes between Tonto and the Lone Ranger’s “spirit horse,” are more memorable than any moments between Depp and the titular masked hero. Still, following his penchant for strange family-friendly characters, Depp delivers another enjoyable turn as Tonto; though, the character is tinged by earlier oddball entries in the actor’s resume (Jack Sparrow/the Mad Hatter/Willy Wonka/Sweeney Todd/Barnabas Collins/etc). Like Depp’s other fan-favorite creations, Tonto is unapologetic as a character that will pursue the most cartoonish and ridiculous course of action in order to delight a moviegoing audience – often at the expense of believability.
While over-the-top camp has worked in other Depp movies, it’s noticeably at odds with the tone of the Lone Ranger, which includes brutal scenes of cannibalism and mass genocide, among other challenging story beats. The film is a surprisingly grim piece of storytelling, especially for viewers who aren’t as easily distracted by big explosions and take time to think about what is actually being depicted (or not-so-subtly implied) moment to moment. Playing fast and loose with history is forgivable at the theater but The Lone Ranger relies on shallow caricature while at the same time introducing a lot of complicated and disturbing aspects of Western expansion to further the plot, and neither approach results in impactful character drama or meaningful thematic insight.
A flawed but often entertaining summer blockbuster experience, The Lone Ranger falls short as a sum of its promising individual parts. Unfortunately, the mixture of two likable leads and a cast of accomplished character actors, backed by highly-successful producers and a $200 million budget, based on a well-known pair of American heroes, doesn’t necessarily deliver a quality moviegoing experience. No doubt, certain audience members will thoroughly enjoy the bangs and gags in this Lone Ranger story but it’s still style over substance at nearly every turn, and fails to evolve or elevate the series canon in any meaningful (or particularly exciting) way.
If you’re still on the fence about The Lone Ranger, check out the trailer below:
The Lone Ranger runs 149 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material. Now playing in theaters.
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