Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Go home, white coward. We don't need you.



Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Justin Haithe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and, one suspects, at least fifty others
With Johnny Depp (Tonto), Armie Hammer (John Reid, arguably some kind of Ranger), William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish), James Badge Dale (Dan Reid), Tom Wilkinson (Latham Cole)

When I sat down to write this review I accidentally typed The Long Ranger, and I’m tempted to just leave it at that.

It's a little hard to relate how The Lone Ranger fails, and even harder to understand why.  There’s no single break in the tracks that sends the whole machine screaming off into the abyss. But thirty minutes before it ends it finally gets to where it should have been thirty minutes after it began, and that a bad movie makes.

 What I mean is, this is not a wholly apt metaphor.

John Reid is freshly graduated from a law school, most likely left unnamed because almost none existed in 1869, on his way back home to Texas to become a frontier district attorney, working alongside his brother Dan, a Texas Ranger. Tonto is a Comanche renegade with a dark secret, bound by the law aboard the same train. Butch Cavendish, infamous black hat, is chained next to him, and he’s waiting for the opportunity to kick off the plot with a breakout abetted by his gang. Soon, John and Tonto will find themselves entwined in a conspiracy that goes far deeper than a band of outlaws. Their journey will lead them into death, rebirth, and the dark underside of Manifest Destiny and bind them together in a quest for justice and revenge.

"And to get airplay for our demo."

This is promising setup. If the whole movie could have been like the opening scene, I would have been applauding by the end. Unfortunately, there's a dire shortage of CGI trains, the principal if not the only means by which Gore Verbinsky seems to be able to make his movie kinetic and interesting.

Though other problems abound, this movie is a true failure of editing. Boring, interminable scenes are allowed to go on, while scenes of emergent intrigue are cut so quickly even the music is surprised.  It turns out that much of most tantalizing imagery from the trailer is still only glimpsed in the full feature.  The moment from the trailer that sold me on The Lone Ranger, and which disabused me of any great expectations in its theatrical execution, is, perhaps strangely enough, the scene of John Reid waking back to life atop a platform high above a mesa.  That will be a great scene, I reckoned; what story did it tell?  Tonto attempting to return the risen spirit to the sky where he belonged?  A weird imprisonment in the air?  Who knows?  Not Gore Verbinski, that scene lasts approximately four seconds.

Much, much more time is spent with long sequences of John and Tonto meandering as aimlessly as the script will permit, which is to say a very great deal. And Tonto can faithfully be counted on to always have one line too many, turning a half-decent chuckle into an eyeroll.

Depp, unsurprisingly, does as fine a job as can be expected given the constraints of script, direction, and editing.  He's effective at creating an odd and occasionally compelling character, differentiated well from his many other odd and compelling characters, and there is joy to be had when his dialogue is fittingly terse and monosyllabic, or he expresses himself through body language and bizarre mannerisms. The shame of it all is that the writers and director, knowing Depp is their brand name, keep forcing the words out of his mouth in the mistaken belief that they are amusing, drawing unfavorable attention to the increasingly obvious fact that Tonto’s iconic pattern of speech is a very goofy affectation.

Make no mistake, of course this is Tonto’s movie and everyone involved knows it, though it's not as big a deal as it might be, since the titular Ranger wasn't using it anyway.

John Reid is a law and order type of the kind we certainly do need in the real world, but who is much-despised in action cinema. He sticks to his effete East Coast elite principles long after the audience has been rendered comatose by their frankly unfilmic nature.  Perhaps the Lone Ranger of old was also not violent; this does not concern me, because this is a movie where one of the villains eats a man's heart, which I'm relatively certain was also not a standby of the original Lone Ranger program.

 Needs more Magua.

The central theme, I guess, of this Lone Ranger is the tension between Reid's lawful good and Tonto's chaotic tendencies. This ideological conflict is not so much resolved, as it just stops... eventually.  It may not take the movie too long to give John his motivating tragedy in the form of his far more genre-conventional brother’s death, but when John sees his brother get his heart carved from his chest, his own doesn't change.  It takes forever for him to inhabit anything like the role of a Western hero, or even an action hero. Until he does, he comes off not as principled, moral man, but a profoundly ignorant naif causing more problems than he solves, waking very slowly to the reality that he has been a human joke that wore out its welcome with express speed.  He's not even capable of rising to the level of a Jack Burton: Jack Burton was active.

Something's wrong with this picture.

The paradox is that even though it takes nearly two hours before the Lone Ranger comes into his own, sort of, when he finally does it’s a complete mystery precisely as to how. He begins the movie with a phobia of firearms, and though the plot requires highly accurate gunplay of him—if only once, in this Western—there is not time in this two and a half hour movie, about a man hardening himself for his revenge, for so much as one training montage. It’s also not clear where his riding expertise comes from, either, though I’ll happily accept that Silver is totally magic.

That's better.

Hammer is charming enough, but his character is a blunderer, a wet blanket, and a nerd, and I could not care less about his bullshit. Thanks to the Lone Ranger, this movie could more accurately be called Tonto Chained. 

This metaphor is completely accurate.

And don’t think my Django parallel is just because of the temporal proximity, pitting the big Western of 2012 against the big Western of 2013, just because they (sort of) occupy the same genre. Django fearlessly explored the institution of slavery in the South; The Lone Ranger dips its toes, ankle, and gets about up to the knee in the moral quagmire of America’s Western expansion at the expense of Indian natives and Chinese immigrants.

I appreciated this, a lot actually. They’re even willing to make John a little bit of a secret racist.

My favorite non-locomotive-related part of the movie is the scene with the Comanche chief. Firstly, it is actually kind of funny in a movie trying hard to be humorous with the most mediocre of comic material—Tonto’s borderline-insane, even potentially offensive, behavior is revealed to be, well, actually insane, or least born of serious trauma, and furthermore he really just makes a lot of stuff up. And while the chief tells Tonto’s tale, he repairs the long-broken watch that a young, trusting Tonto received as payment for his soul and his mind, displaying a talent for machinery unusual in film depictions of his people.  It's a small touch, but a nice one (it is not, however, a metaphor for anything involving Tonto's actual growth as a character, since the chief just buries him and John in the sand a few moments later).

Indeed, the maltreatment of Native America by Europeans is the film's framing device.  Managing to be both charming and sad, the entire movie is actually a story told to a young boy by an old, decrepit Tonto, who decades later has been reduced to working in a traveling carnival as a living diorama figure in an exhibit entitled "The Noble Savage."  (Some of the few other jokes that do manage to land involve Tonto misremembering and being interrupted by the inquisitive lad.  The return to 1933 is rarely unwelcome, but that speaks less of how good this framing device is and how boring the movie is.  Also, Tonto never tells us how he got out of jail, and that's pretty annoying.)

On reflection, I don't really have a problem with The Lone Ranger's tonal shifts, poorly executed as they often are.  Many silly things happened in Django, but if they arose naturally from the story and setting, and if that levity faded as we descended deeper into Calvin Candie's personal hell on earth, whilst John and Tonto engage in camp, but not camp enough, antics while being cross-cut against an ongoing genocide, well... it failed to entirely offend me.  The Lone Ranger's real issue here is that it only has vague aspirations to being about the great horrors on the frontier, never committing to the notion that powered Django, the welcome and accurate conception of 19th century America as a fundamentally evil and illegitimate society.  This is too bad, since a modernization of the masked outlaw-for-justice as a hero of 21st century morality operating in our immoral past, thereby redeeming us (a little bit), is an approach that could have worked if they went for the gusto.

By the way, Django? Training montage. And a Western hero who shoots at bad people, on purpose, with a gun.

Also, actually lone.

Of course, one shouldn’t expect The Lone Ranger to be a serious film about race and colonialism. That’s fine. One should expect it to be a rollicking action thrill ride; the entire point was to do Western as summer blockbuster. So the real question of the day is, where did the reported quarter billion dollars spent on this movie go?

Buster Keaton’s The General, to which this film owes much for what good it does, utterly destroyed a real train in its most famous set-piece. It cost, in inflation-adjusted dollars, ten million bucks. Three CGI trains are trashed in questionably plausible fashion in Ranger (and did you know that silver is soft like a pillow? so feel free to jump forty feet into a coal car full of it). Maybe they should have just bought some antiques to smash; it might have been cheaper. Or would the modern day equivalent to the The General's expensive spectacle of physics be to throw Johnny Depp off a bridge for fifty million dollars?

It’s probably clear that I’ve never seen the old Lone Ranger serials or listened to the radio shows. I was always more of an planetary romance and science fantasy guy—Commando Cody and the like. That didn’t stop me from being ready to love this Lone Ranger. Quite the opposite. Let me give you a piece of revealing background: the 1980 Flash Gordon is one of my favorite films. I mean, top ten-favorite. Probably top five. I think, and I will endlessly tell you, without a trace of irony, that it is one of the best movies ever made by humans. It is cartoonish and garish and it lavished money on a cheap look to create a world that was wholly unrealistic but beautiful to behold. And it is capital-F Fun.

Hell, it even has a scene—rarely discussed—when Hans Zarkov is strapped to Ming’s mind-sifter and his memories are emptied from his head, featuring Hitler, the invasion of Poland, and allusions to genocide. Ming's secret policeman even makes a joke about it. So that whole People’s History of the Lone Ranger thing they want to do is not necessarily an insuperable stumbling block.

But The Lone Ranger needed to choose life and go for it, if they wanted to replicate (or, let’s be realistic, approach) the artistic success of a Flash Gordon. They needed so much more than what they put into it.  Instead of Ming, it's a cardboard railroad baron.  Instead of Vultan, it's nobody at all.  Instead of a tantalizing world that seems to exist far beyond the frame, there is no more of interest on the margins than there is in the main.  And instead of the soaring guitars of Queen, it's yet another bland Hans Zimmer score, that discovers a mortal enemy in the editing, provides flashes of stimulation that go nowhere, and which can find inspiration only in better composers, wonderfully with the obligatory but jarringly-effective "William Tell Overture" by Giaocchino Rossini,and infuriatingly with a brief Ennio Morricone cocktease.

Yet the final set-piece, "William Tell" ablaring, is fantastic enough, and is the true giddy action-camp I asked for in the first place. It has the power to rouse you from your stupor, even make you want to cheer, and the charitable could even forgive the two hours it took to get to this glorious point. But, it’s never enough with these people: they decide to crap out a last line of dialogue that may have even been funny an hour earlier, but placed where it is will just make you wonder, whether you loved the original shows or not, or even if you’ve never seen them like me, why they even bothered, if they hate the Lone Ranger so much.

Score: 4/10

P.S.: by the way, this movie has the worst bug-horror scene ever put to film.  There are a few reactions that come naturally to being swarmed by scorpions (which I do not believe swarm, but that is acceptable license).  One is screaming.  One is having a heart attack.  One is freezing in terror.  Dull surprise is not any of them.


  1. You do realize that The Ranger's abilities don't come from out of nowhere. He was raised in the same town he comes back to. Just because he hasn't riden a horse on a regular basis or fired a gun...why would he need a training montage? That makes no sense. He already KNOWS HOW to do those things. He just chooses not to. And I think you meant John AND Tonto are kind of racist in the beginning. Not just John. But eh, I liked the movie. I think people need to chill and learn to enjoy something and stop overanalyzing every single aspect of a film.

    1. Iirc John Reid explicitly states that he hasn't fired a gun in eight years. He's also explicitly shown to be a very bad shot in the scene at his bro's wife's farmhouse (though he gets lucky). Eight years without drilling for marksmanship is pretty much out of nowhere. My JD didn't come with trick riding lessons, but I did go to a T3, so I will concede that he probably still rode horses back east at law school.

      Funny thing is, I did a little (cursory) research on the Lone Ranger after writing this, and it turned out he never killed either. He also shot to wound or disarm. The kind of accuracy needed to do that is an order of magnitude greater than the accuracy needed to kill. But this being fiction, it's totally possible and that's great. But I'll quote this piece from the Lone Ranger Creed:

      "I believe...
      In being prepared
      physically, mentally, and morally
      to fight when necessary
      for that which is right."

      I'm just saying that this John Reid didn't spend a lot of effort on physical, mental, or moral preparation. And, indeed, his lack of preparation wound up crushing two dudes' skulls because of one of his bullets. The Ranger of old would have strenuously avoided this bloodshed. (The alternative of a deliberately deadly Ranger would have also been OK, but for a pulp adventure, I think you needed to go to one or the other extreme--both would require a credibly skilled John Reid, hence the usefulness of a training montage.)

      As for Tonto being pretty racist too, I fully agree. But that was pretty expected. I was just surprised they went that way with John, and it was a realistic if unpleasant touch that I liked.

      All that said, thanks for commenting, and I'm glad you liked the film. I really wanted to myself. I just couldn't.