Friday, July 5, 2013

The Lone Ranger: The mild, mild West

The Lone Ranger (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense action violence and suggested gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.5.13

The best that can be said for this fiasco, is that it’s marginally superior to director William A. Fraker’s leaden, charmless 1981 film, The Legend of the Lone Ranger.

But that’s damning with very faint praise.

Having failed to persuade a Comanche tribe that war with the neighboring white-man
settlement is a bad idea, Tonto (Johnny Depp, left) and the Lone Ranger (Armie
Hammer) are left in a painfully vulnerable position. And it's about to get worse, when
scorpions come calling...
Chief among that earlier film’s many flaws was the block-of-wood “performance” from no-name star Klinton Spilsbury, in (thank God) his only big-screen appearance. Michael Horse, as Tonto, acted circles around him.

But pretty much everything else was wrong, as well; even the usually dependable John Barry turned in a listless score that was marred further by a pokey, half-speed rendition of “The William Tell Overture” — the Lone Ranger’s iconic theme — that brought the already sluggish drama to a dead stop.

So I give composer Hans Zimmer credit for his spirited, cheer-inducing handling of “The William Tell Overture” during this new film’s climax, and I credit director Gore Verbinski for knowing how best to use it. Kudos, as well, to Verbinski and special-effects supervisors Tim Alexander and Gary Brozenich, for two audacious train chases: a good one to open the film, and a dog-nuts-sensational one to close it.

But pretty much everything else is wrong.

For openers, this clumsy, overcooked mess runs a butt-numbing 149 minutes: a “privilege” Verbinski apparently earned because his similarly bloated Pirates of the Caribbean entries have made a gazillion bucks for Disney. Mind you, length is fine if the script demands it, but that’s far from the case here; as my watch’s illuminated dial ticked off the minutes — depressingly slowly — toward the two-hour mark, I desperately hoped we were about to wrap things up ... but no, the slog continued, mercilessly, for another half-hour.

The major problem is that Verbinski and his scripters — Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe — can’t decide what sort of movie to make. On the one hand, they more-or-less attempt to honor the existing Lone Ranger mythos, as established by the popular radio series (1933-54) and TV series (1949-57). I appreciate the effort, half-hearted though it may be.

On the other hand, they blend this often grim drama with the sort of jokey, slapstick tone that marked the Pirates series ... no surprise there, since Elliott and Rossio wrote all four entries in that franchise. No surprise, as well, that Johnny Depp’s Tonto is the same sort of mincing, scowling, alternate-reality caricature that the actor made of Capt. Jack Sparrow. The only difference is that Tonto isn’t ever drunk ... although the film’s scripters flirt with that notion, as well.

These two extremes of tone simply don’t work; at times, the mix becomes deeply offensive. The film’s low point — and it’s a ghastly, horrifying miscalculation — comes when an entire Comanche tribe is slaughtered by a corrupt U.S. Cavalry captain and his Gatling gun-toting soldiers. Moments later, our heroes crack wise as usual, and events proceed in that farcical fashion, as if nothing significant has occurred.

The Comanches aren’t mentioned again, despite their relevance to Tonto’s back-story. Hey, what’s a few hundred dead Injuns, right?

Thoroughly, reprehensibly tasteless.

Enduring that sequence and its aftermath, in the moment, I couldn’t believe Disney had signed off on it. Days later, I still can’t believe it.

Heinous though it is, that’s merely an isolated incident. The bigger, ongoing problem concerns this film’s depiction of John Reid — the Lone Ranger — who is played by Armie Hammer as a prissy fop, idealistic far beyond the point of absurdity, and utterly incapable of doing or saying the right thing. He is, in short, an irredeemable fool: a clown who exists solely to serve as a foil for Depp’s Tonto.

No fault of Hammer’s; he was directed this way. Indeed, he’s quite convincing as an imbecilic, bumbling, starry-eyed näif.

Until, that is, he has to shift gears so that Reid can truly, seriously mourn the loss of a brother who is murdered — and has his heart cut out and eaten — by this story’s key villain. Suddenly, Hammer’s otherwise dainty performance doesn’t seem so amusing. Nor is it as successful.

I simply cannot understand why modern filmmakers find it necessary to defecate on the carefully cultivated legacy — sometimes generations in the making — of characters who mean a great deal to fans who grew up with them, back in the day. Why irritate the people who care — the acolytes who will recognize the name, and expect a certain fidelity toward folklore — when it would be easier, and safer, to simply invent new characters, and establish new traditions?

The notoriously campy big-screen revivals of I Spy and Wild, Wild West — as two examples — were shameful financial duds, driving a stake through the possibility of any serious remakes. This new debacle — call it Verbinski’s Folly — is equally disgraceful, and I hope Disney posts a whopping financial loss on its (reported) $250 million budget.

To cases, then:

The film unfolds in the fashion of The Princess Bride, as a fable related to an impressionable young listener. We begin in San Francisco, during the Depression, as a young boy (Mason Cook, suitably wide-eyed) visits the “Wild West” exhibit in a large carnival. Pausing at a display case showing a wizened Native American “in his natural habitat,” the boy is astonished to see the statue’s eyes flicker. Indeed, this is a very, very old Tonto, who is deeply moved by the kid’s cowboy outfit and black domino mask.

And, so, Tonto tells his story.

We move backward to 1869, as residents of the small Texas town of Colby cheer when railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) enthusiastically proclaims that the “iron horse” soon will connect their community — and the entire United States — from sea to shining sea. First, though, there’s an old matter to deal with: the proper hanging of notorious outlaw Burch Cavendish (William Fichtner, grimy down to his blackened teeth), soon to arrive by train.

The local rangers, led by Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), ride out to meet the train. Conveniently, its passengers include Reid’s younger brother, John, returning after years of absence, during which he has become an idealistic, big-city lawyer.

Also on the train, locked up alongside Cavendish: Tonto ... for reasons of his own.

Cavendish manages to escape, with help from his outlaw gang. Dan mounts a posse that John insists on joining, much to the consternation of Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), married to Dan but apparently still carrying a torch for John. Her son, Danny (Bryant Prince), is understandably confused by his mother’s behavior.

(We wonder, throughout this entire film, if Danny actually is John’s son. The question remains unresolved.)

Things subsequently go very, very bad; there’s a reason John Reid subsequent adopts a new identity as the lone ranger. He owes his rescue to Tonto, whose generosity comes reluctantly, and only because a wild white stallion — regarded as an intelligent, mystical spirit — “chooses” John for greater things.

This majestic beast steals the film (not all that difficult, considering). Silver, far more intelligent than either John or Tonto, has a disconcerting tendency to appear in treetops, or on the roof of a burning barn. Reid’s new mount also is utterly fearless, whether galloping amid gunfire or (ahem) atop a moving train, leaping from one car to the next.

When Tonto mutters “Something very wrong with that horse,” we can’t help laughing ... because, actually, something is very right. Silver’s various antics are masterminded by horse-wrangler Bobby Lovgren, who worked similar magic in Seabiscuit and War Horse. As a result, Silver displays far more personality than his two-legged co-stars.

Anyway, the chase is on, and on ... and on. Tonto and the Lone Ranger get caught, escape, get caught again, escape again. They bicker, make up, bicker again. Cavendish gets caught again, and he escapes again. Over and over and over. Meanwhile, Cole makes smarmy advances toward Rebecca, who is understandably wary.

Sidebar characters enter the mix: Barry Pepper, as the morally challenged Cavalry officer; and Helena Bonham Carter, actually quite amusing as Red Harrington, a peg-legged madam whose scrimshaw-adorned false limb conceals a rather lethal gun. We’re told that Red lost her leg to Cavendish, with a further implication that he may have eaten it. (Such palatable details, in this story.)

No question, Depp’s shifty-eyed performance can be quite funny at times. His double-takes are superbly timed, and he gets considerable mileage from a variety of scowls: doubtful, bewildering, angry, playful. We wait for Tonto to crack a smile; I’m not sure it ever actually happens ... and that, too, is amusing.

Far less amusing — indeed, tedious — is the amount of time Tonto spends “feeding” the dead crow that adorns his headpiece. Not even the Monty Python gang would have beaten a pallid joke to death so relentlessly.

Fichtner is memorably nightmarish: every inch a loathsome villain. Wilkinson is sinister in his own right, on the level of a slow burn; we wonder, throughout, what he’s actually up to. Dale’s Dan Reid is the story’s most credibly “real” character: a decent man whose passing we mourn deeply.

Bonham Carter’s Red Harrington is a hoot, but Pepper can’t begin to navigate the ethical extremes assigned to his character. The members of Cavendish’s gang aren’t allowed to display much personality, and therefore remain anonymous blobs. Rebecca is similarly ill-defined; Wilson’s performance is so muted that she seems to be in a drug-induced haze (actually true only once).

Things are pretty bad when the stand-out characters are a horse and the kid listening to this saga unfold. And they can’t begin to sustain a 149-minute movie.

Nobody can. Nobody does. The Lone Ranger is a clumsy, badly directly and atrociously scripted slog.

When radio audiences heard the Lone Ranger shout “Hi-yo, Silver ... away!” — back in the day — they knew an exciting riding sequence was about to take place. It’s too bad this film’s Silver couldn’t have dragged Verbinski, the writers and most of the cast far, far away ... thus sparing us the need to sit through this dud.

No comments:

Post a Comment