The Lone Ranger is most likely not what you expect, though it probably has at least one or two moments (or silver bullets) aimed at you. It’s not a devoted adaptation of the beloved TV show from the 50’s or the radio show from the 30’s. It’s not a “Disneyfied” (hate that word, it’s so condescending) version of a Western, aimed at kids. It’s not Pirates of the Caribbean on horseback, though your ability to enjoy The Lone Ranger might be related to your ability to enjoy that saga of movies. It’s not even a live-action adaptation of Rango. So what is it?
The Lone Ranger is a rip-roaring, funny, violent, subversive, political, Western action extravaganza. It’s creative and interesting, a wild ride that is constantly shifting tone and style and keeps things fresh for its entire two and a half hour running time (a common complaint among film critics). It’s gritty and real in a way that Man of Steel could never have imagined, and the final half-hour of is some of the most creative and exciting action seen on film in recent memory.
The story of The Lone Ranger actually sticks to the well-established mythology from the character’s history. John Reid, younger brother of Texas Ranger Dan Reid, becomes the sole survivor of an ambush by the villainous Butch Cavendish, dons a mask and becomes the Lone Ranger, a hero fighting for justice along with his faithful companion, Tonto. But that’s all on the surface, and maybe all most people were expecting. To understand the film you have to go back to the beginning, in fact to the very first scene.
The film actually opens in 1933 at a carnival, where a young boy dressed as the Lone Ranger pays to enter an exhibit on the Old West. Inside he finds a stuffed buffalo, a stuffed bear, and a diorama of “The Noble Savage in his native habitat.” Has he stares at the representation of an elderly Native American, it suddenly stares back, shocked by the boy’s appearance. He proposes a trade for the boy’s peanuts, eating some and feeding some to the dead crow on his head, and begins to tell the story of how the Lone Ranger came to be. This framing device sets the stage for the film, as we’re reliving everything through Tonto’s memory.
We meet John Reid, the new district attorney for the region, reading the treatises of John Locke while the rest of his railcar partakes in a worship service, singing hymns and asking him to join them in prayer. John is not a cowboy, he’s not a gunfighter, he’s a lawyer, a city slicker with a firm belief in justice and the due process of the law. His brother and the rest of the local Rangers are supposed to meet him at the station, along with Butch Cavendish, who is also on the train in chains, on his way to be hanged. Chained next to Butch is Tonto, who watches as Butch’s gang shows up to spring him from custody. John, concerned after seeing the shadow of a man running along the roof of the train, goes to investigate, only to end up chained to Tonto by Butch, who escapes.
What follows is merely the first exciting action sequence featuring a train in the film, as Tonto and John try to escape while also saving the passengers on the now runaway train. Trains are central to this film (Sheldon Cooper must be thrilled), as they are both the engine behind the plot and the stage on which it’s told. After being deputized as a Ranger, John sets off after Butch with his brother and the other Rangers, only for all of them to be killed during an ambush. Tonto arrives, burying the dead and trading with the corpses for trinkets, and discovers that John is still alive. Tonto believes him to be the spiritwalker, a warrior who can’t be killed, and he gives John a mask and the two ride off for justice.
That all sounds relatively simple, but there’s just so much to The Lone Ranger. There’s Tom Wilkinson’s railroad tycoon, who devotes everything to the cause of progress. There’s Barry Pepper’s cavalry captain, whose cause is retaliation against the Comanche for attacks on white settlements. There’s the motherload of a silver deposit, of an amount powerful enough to change the fate of the west. And that’s without mentioning the whorehouse madam played by Helena Bonham Carter or John’s widowed sister-in-law (who may have married the wrong brother, and who is desired by Wilkinson’s tycoon) and her son.
My point here is that there’s a lot going on in The Lone Ranger, and while the villains and the heroes may be clear, the path they all follow is considerably less so. But all of that would be just noise if the movie didn’t have such a fantastic duo at its center. Armie Hammer plays John Reid, a man unaccustomed to action but capable of stepping up. He has an internal struggle to find a balance between the law he believes in and the realities of the way the law works in the west. He constantly stresses his quest for justice, with the implication being that anything more is simply vengeance, and it’s all perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the classic character without seeming cheesy or shallow.
The other half of the duo is Johnny Depp’s Tonto, who might seem at first glance to be simply a Native American version of Jack Sparrow. The characters have little in common, however, other than outlandish makeup and the fact that Johnny Depp is behind them. Depp’s Tonto is in many ways the star of the picture, and is definitely more capable than John Reid at first. It’s a far cry from the subservient Tonto of old, which was Depp’s main motivation to reinvent the character. Tonto is the brains behind the operation, with the Lone Ranger often a step behind. As things progress they begin to become equals, in a way that feels much more appropriate in our modern age.
As for the question of the white Depp playing a Native American, the easiest answer is to say it works. For the most part, Depp is the reason this film got made at all, and it was his decision to play Tonto. He uses the part to both play into common stereotypes and to subvert them. He’s the most rounded character in the piece. Would it be nice to see a Tonto written with this amount of depth but played by an actual Native American? Of course it would, but Depp’s performance does nothing to degrade the image of Native Americans. In fact, the film makes very clear that one shouldn’t take him to be representative of an entire people. The other Comanches are nothing like him, and look down on many of the ways in which he plays into the common stereotypes. Tonto’s backstory gives us a reason why, but I’m not going to spoil it. The whole things is handled in a way that subverts the handling both of Native Americans on film and minorities in general.
A lot of that cleverness comes down to the writing. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the writers behind Pirates of the Caribbean, were joined by Justin Haythe for this outing, and have crafted a complex story that has some interesting things to say about a variety of topics. They’ve combined, again, with Gore Verbinski, who seems to me the perfect choice for this film. He has a fantastic sensibility for action, but he also knows his way around comedy and has an artist’s eye. His usual score collaborator, Hans Zimmer, does a great job of sounding original while pulling from all of the classic Western score types (hints of Silverado, The Magnificent Seven and the “Spaghetti Westerns”) while incorporating the famous “William Tell Overture” at the right moments.
In all, it’s a lovingly put together film, and feels infinitely more real than many of the other blockbusters of the summer (Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness). It’s very telling that the list of stuntmen and stuntwomen in the credits is just as long as the visual effects people (and got an appreciative mumbling from the remaining audience as it continued to scroll and scroll and scroll). But there’s nothing typical about it. It can be very funny, filled with slapstick and absurdist humor (specifically with Silver the horse), and equally, brutally violent, though largely bloodless, from bullet holes aplenty to the cannibalistic tendencies of the villain.
And while it’s not the deepest of stories, with the villains clearly visible, the character motivations still feel real and believable. In many ways, The Lone Ranger is pretty crazy, and probably not what most people are expecting. It’s long, violent, subversive and complicated, which may not appeal to everyone. But for me, I’ll take an unconventional, genuinely exciting ride of a movie any day. I wish Hollywood would make more films this way. If you keep an open mind, I’m sure you could enjoy it. I know I did, and judging by the reactions in the completely full theater I was in, lots of other people did too.
There are a few things in The Lone Ranger that I think are worth talking about. Firstly, in many ways it resembles another reboot of a popular 1950’s show. I’m talking, of course, about 1998’s The Mask of Zorro. Both films are about masked folk heroes, both revolve around a secret mine and precious metals, and both involve the political history of a region along with a corrupt, blonde member of the American military. Both feature actors playing characters of a different ethnicity (Depp’s Tonto and Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both from Wales, playing Spaniards). Both movies feature some gruesome scenes; in The Lone Ranger Butch eats Dan Reid’s heart after killing him, while in The Mask of Zorro Captain Love keeps a severed head and hand in jars of spirits from which Zorro takes a drink.
Yet Zorro was widely applauded while The Lone Ranger has been widely criticized. Part of it may be simply changing times, part of it may be prejudice against Disney, part of it may be a general weariness regarding Johnny Depp and the similar Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In all, I feel like much of my complaining in my previous article this week was correct.
But more interesting by far are some of the messages that seem to exist in The Lone Ranger. It’s actually pretty funny that this movie was released for the 4th of July, when it’s pretty critical of American history. Soldiers are seen slaughtering Native Americans, in the words of the cavalry Captain, repaying “tenfold” the attacks on settlements. In the end, it turns out the the attacks on the settlements were actually perpetrated by Butch, under the orders of the railroad tycoon, in order to justify violating a treaty which would cause the railroad to have to detour around Comanche territory. In the film, the “corporate” interest manipulated public opinion in order to direct governmental policy for its own benefit. And as a result, innocent lives were lost and an entire people were scorned.
Of course, none of this is particularly new. The American government did horrible things to the native population, even before there was an American government to claim responsibility for it. At this point, it’s not especially bold to make this claim, as even the most patriotic Americans will probably admit the atrocities that occurred, even if it is a bit surprising to see a major Hollywood film on the 4th of July make the claim. The people who say Disney just makes childish, whitewashed films need to pay more attention.
But there’s something even more fascinating. I mentioned earlier that we first see John Reid reading John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” in the middle of a Christian worship service. The preacher is giving a sermon, and the woman sitting across from him is asleep. Her daughter drops a doll, which he retrieves and then accidentally drops out the window (it’s hilarious). The little girl starts to cry, waking the mother. She offers for John to pray with her, saying she’s a Presbyterian, but he says that “the only book I need is right here,” pointing to what he had been reading.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re turning the Lone Ranger into an atheist, but they’re clearly showing that for him the “laws of man” so-to-speak are what is most important to him. To him, the enlightenment ideals are what America was founded on, and that’s what he bases his ideas of justice on. There is no room for “an eye for an eye” in his worldview. And when you consider the atrocities committed by the government and those in power in the country throughout the course of the movie, it makes for an interesting picture of America. (The cavalry Captain even shouts, “For God and country!” before massacring the Comanche attackers.) In many ways, as an outlaw he’s fighting to restore America to what he thinks it should be.
Of course, we also have Tonto. Tonto tells the whole story to a little white boy while dressed up in a diorama. He feeds his dead bird, and in many ways acts in the way that movies have always portrayed Native Americans. His english is not nearly so broken, and it doesn’t sound any worse than anyone else who is speaking a second language, but he does a lot of “crazy” spiritual stuff, the way that Native American characters have done in countless movies and shows through the years. Yet we eventually learn that he was responsible for his entire tribe being wiped out and lost his mind as a result. When Tonto and John are captured by Comanches, John tries to get in good with them by mimicking Tonto’s behavior, and the chief suggests that John might have sunstroke.
The message is clear. Just because Tonto does these crazy things, don’t assume that that’s the way things really are. Inside the story, Tonto is clearly made out to be the exception, in many ways excusing his behavior by making it definitively clear that in now way is he supposed to represent the Comanches or anyone else. But we also have an added layer in that Tonto is telling his story while in this diorama. We can’t know how accurate the story is, but it would be a fair assumption that he is portraying himself in a way consistent with his job in the carnival sideshow. In the end, he puts on a 1930’s suit and hat and walks off into the desert, choosing not to dress like a stereotype when alone. I’m sure if someone is looking to be offended by Depp’s portrayal, they’ll find a way to, but to me it’s pretty clear that the new Tonto could not be less of a caricature. I think it’s safe to say that the filmmakers, writers and cast did everything necessary to make sure no one would come away believing in any of the stereotypes of the old days.
I have a million more thoughts, about the critics’ reactions, about the quality of Tonto’s old-age makeup, about why there needs to be a Best Stunts category in the Oscars, but I think I’ll stop here. As I said in my review, there’s a lot to The Lone Ranger, and I think it’s definitely worth your time and money. It may not be for everyone (even if I absolutely loved it), but it’s fun and funny and a great way to spend an afternoon.