The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Ranger

The Lone Ranger was a megaflop almost before it hit the screen, but Gareth Negus still lives in hope it might actually be good. 

'Why the long face?'
‘Why the long face?’

You can see how it must have looked like a good idea.  Resurrect a semi-superheroic duo – The Lone Ranger and Tonto – familiar to a couple of generations.  Get the team behind Pirates of the Caribbean to make it.  Throw a ton of money at the screen.

But Disney’s reinvention of The Lone Ranger opened to disappointing ticket sales in North America, becoming almost as big a flop for the studio as John Carter last year.  It’s perhaps the highest profile would-be tentpoles that have underperformed domestically this year, joining After Earth, White House Down, Pacific Rim and The Wolverine.  It’s not unusual for one of the year’s megabudget productions to disappoint the studio accountants, but it’s less common for a whole string of them to meet with audience indifference, while more frugal productions like The Conjuring enjoy a healthy return. Some of these films may yet be saved by their international take, but until that happens there’s a temptation to think that audiences are finally tiring of formula filmmaking. It’s more likely, however, that there are just too many of these things being released in a short space of time . It’s hard to look like an event movie when you’re offering the same pleasures as three or four other things playing in the same multiplex.

The omens were there: westerns aren’t exactly big box office these days (but then, neither were pirates before Pirates).  The Lone Ranger is a famous character, but does anyone much under 40 really know or care who he is?  (A problem that also affected John Carter).  And the idea of Johnny Depp playing Tonto did feel slightly odd, even if Depp is part Native American, sort of, possibly (in the film’s production notes, he hedges “I was told at a very young age that we have some Indian blood in our family… who knows how much — maybe very little, I don’t know.”).  There was also a level of weariness at the prospect of another mannered, deliberately eccentric Depp performance, the freshness of his first appearance as Jack Sparrow having lost its shine after three dull sequels and the flop of Dark Shadows.  But is The Lone Ranger just suffering from the competition, or is it actually a bad movie?

'No, really - why the long face?'
‘No, really – why the long face?’

The Lone Ranger opens with a young boy in a Lone Ranger mask discovering an aged Tonto in a Wild West fairground exhibit.  Through a series of flashbacks, Tonto tells of how he met John Reid (Armie Hammer), an attorney who avoids carrying a gun, much to the contempt of his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger.  They’re both planning to bring bad guy Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to justice. Naturally, things go wrong, which leads to John being the only survivor of an ambush which does for Dan and the rest of the Rangers. Discovered by Tonto, Reid is told that his best option is to play dead, wear a mask and seek justice that way.

The plot is complicated – or at least lengthened – by various elements, including a second villain (screamingly obvious the moment he appears), much conniving over the railroad and a silver mine, and some mildly supernatural stuff thanks to nature being out of balance. This last element, though toned down from earlier drafts (apparently there were werewolves) feels strangely tacked on, as though somebody felt the fantasy elements of the Pirates films needed to be replicated in what could otherwise have been a straight Western adventure.

And that’s at the heart of what doesn’t work about the film; there’s just too much going on, and chunks of it just don’t mesh.  The supernatural elements work when discussed purely as part of Tonto’s beliefs, but not when they are literally happening. Some of the comedy is funny, but at other points – as when the Ranger’s absurd failure to remove his blindfold while being rescued by Tonto is intercut with a Comanche army being massacred – it feels tasteless.

The ambush of the Rangers is one of the high points of the film; it’s played straight, just a group of men being callously and suddenly murdered.  If the rest of the film had continued in a similar manner, acting as a largely serious adventure about Reid’s search for justice, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. Instead, we end up with extended scenes of people performing stunts that in reality would have seen them die immediately. I don’t mind big action scenes, but when plausibility is left this far behind, I cease caring.

'Why the long ...' 'Goddammit, that's it. I quit.'
‘Why the long …’ ‘Goddammit, that’s it. I quit.’

At least the film isn’t in 3D, which rather surprised me, and left me wondering when that decision was made. Though I need a very good reason to bother with the format at this point, it did strike me that the beautiful scenery of Monument Valley – the real highlight of the film – would have looked even better in 3D.  (It wouldn’t have helped the action, but given that it gets pretty tedious anyway, it wouldn’t have hurt it.)

To be fair, there are good things about the film. Not only does it look good (I’m happy to ignore the fact that Monument Valley is in Utah rather than Texas), but Hammer and Depp work up an entertaining double act; indeed, Depp just about manages to make us forget about Jack Sparrow.  And when the William Tell Overture breaks into the soundtrack during the overlong climax, it’s a pleasing change from the Hans Zimmer score that sounds like so many movies nowadays. In fact, those too young to recognise the tune may find it jarring.

If I wanted to be generous, I could say that the film’s excesses can be explained by the fact that it’s being told by Tonto to a small child; he’s an unreliable narrator, adding the stuff about killer rabbits and horses galloping nimbly along racing trains either because it suits him to claim it happened like that, or because he thinks his audience wants it this way – in the same way that Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer appear to.  But I doubt that’s the interpretation the producers intended.

Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that a big part of the reason why Pirates of the Caribbean became such a hit is that it was unexpected. The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, is exactly what you expect. I can’t help feeling that this film could have achieved so much more with another $100m knocked off the budget (and maybe 20 minutes off the running time). If it had trusted the audience a little more, allowed us to be excited by the characters more than the stunts, it could have avoided becoming just another empty, bloated spectacle. You can only go on so many rollercoaster rides before you start to feel sick. If this summer’s crop of blockbusters has demonstrated anything, it’s that more is sometimes less.

The Lone Ranger is released in the UK on Friday 9 August.

Gareth Negus tweets at twitter.com/GarethNegus

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3 thoughts on “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Ranger

  1. “And when the William Tell Overture breaks into the soundtrack during the overlong climax, it’s a pleasing change from the Hans Zimmer score that sounds like so many movies nowadays.”

    That seems to be a recurring theme (no pun intended) with Masked Man movies; I have a cassette of the soundtrack for previous box office disaster area “The Legend Of The Lone Ranger” and John Barry(!)’s music only takes flight when Rossini kicks in. At least this new one doesn’t have an inappropriate Merle Haggard song.

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