In highfalutin’ acting circles, it’s said that American performers are trained to work from the inside out, crafting a character’s inner life before working on external traits, like voice and clothing. Conversely, British actors are said to work from the outside in, where a character’s clothing, hair, make-up, walk, posture, and even footwear serve as entry points for a characterization. Guess which of these methods Johnny Depp probably embraces? And, if so, can he stop already? Between the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Dark Shadows, and now The Lone Ranger, Depp’s fondness for playing dress-up is getting him too far away from the days he was considered an actor of serious merit, not just the coolest tentpole star around (although Robert Downey Jr. has arguably stolen that crown).
In The Lone Ranger, Depp plays Tonto, the title character’s Comanche sidekick, with a face full of stone-colored make-up and a dead crow atop his head. Darting his eyes and contorting his face into comical shapes while cracking wise with a slightly overdone injun accent, Depp plays it like a silent film clown. It’s a take on the character that doesn’t serve the movie very well and isn’t particularly focused.
Then again, the entire affair never finds its center, as director Gore Verbinski, the best of the big-budget visual fetishists, can’t decide if he’s making an archetypical Western, an atypical Western, or a full-blown action comedy. Of course, what Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are really making is a quasi-sequel to their massively successful Pirates of the Caribbean series, which is the crux of The Lone Ranger’s problem. Instead of making something reminiscent of another movie, Verbinski and Bruckheimer should have made something that works on its own terms. The one attribute The Lone Ranger and the Pirates series do share is an unfortunate one: they’re both confused and long-winded slogs.
Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger is the latest movie based on the exploits of the masked Texas crime fighter who made his debut in a 1933 radio serial, long before sarcasm and irony became the coin of the realm in American culture. So from the outset, it’s questionable whether an upright lawman of sincerity and rectitude would even resonate with today’s jaded audiences. Verbinski’s solution is for Armie Hammer to play the part as a dull, violence-averse, and dweeby target for Depp’s verbal depredations. In other words, in the movie that bears his name, The Lone Ranger is reduced to being the sidekick to the sidekick.
Hammer, best known as both Winklevoss twins in David Fincher’s The Social Network, is an actor of considerable handsomeness and vertical length. Here he’s game for anything, including being dragged through a pile of horse manure and getting buried up to his neck in dirt. However, Hammer lacks the charisma to share the screen with Johnny Depp and has trouble navigating the various tones that Verbinski can’t decide between.
The Lone Ranger: ’Frisky’ and ’bloated’
The tone of The Lone Ranger’s opening suggests we’re in for something frisky and cracked (like Verbinski’s superior revisionist Western, Rango), but also bloated and too densely plotted (like the Pirates of the Caribbean series). Establishing the film’s unnecessary flashback structure, a young boy in 1933 visits an Old West carnival exhibit in San Francisco. There he encounters an elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp in old-age make-up), who springs from a Noble Savage diorama to regale the kid with the long-ago story of meeting by-the-book prosecutor and future Lone Ranger John Reid (Armie Hammer).
This being a film co-written by the Pirates duo of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (along with Justin Haythe), needless complications quickly drain the fun out of The Lone Ranger. Yet, the 19th-century set-up is encouraging. A train bound for Colby, Texas, carries earnest, bumbling Reid and two prisoners: the villainous Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, nailing it) and a certain Comanche Indian. When Cavendish escapes and the train crashes spectacularly, Tonto disappears while Reid is deputized by his lawman brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to help him find the snaggletoothed outlaw.
During their pursuit, the Cavendish gang stages a surprisingly brutal ambush where Dan is killed and John is left for dead. Tonto turns up to revive John, proclaim him an invincible spirit walker (complete with spirit horse), and fashion him a black mask made from Dan’s clothing. Together they hunt for Butch, a quest reminiscent of John Ford’s The Searchers, another Western about a man trying to find his brother’s killer while harboring deep feelings for his brother’s wife. (Dan’s wife and the object of John’s affection is played by Ruth Wilson, who’s spunky but overmatched by the film’s sheer size.)
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Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger image: Walt Disney Studios.