Sunday 25 August 2013

The Lone Ranger: A Profound Misunderstanding

I'm not hugely fond of movie critics. I think in many ways they are the least qualified people to write about movies. Certainly their wrongheadedness — or mendacity — is often more spectacular than the blockbusters they're writing about. 

And if any filmgoer is innocent enough to follow their recommendations they're likely to  miss out on some splendidly entertaining movies and waste money — and time, a lot of time— on dreadful, grisly, pretentious junk. (Norwegian Wood and Melancholia, I'm looking at you here.)

Consequently I take great delight in pointing out when the critics get it wrong. For example, in the current wave of summer popcorn flicks, the received wisdom that RED 2 or The Wolverine are duds is just plain wrong. RED 2 was delightful, brisk, non-stop entertainment and often hilarious, while The Wolverine was a classy and intelligent comic book thriller. More on The Wolverine in a posting near you.

I was hoping I could offer a similar against-the-tide defence of The Lone Ranger. And for maybe the first hour and a half of this long (149 minute) film I thought I would. Johnny Depp is immensely entertaining, the film is frequently very funny, Hans Zimmer provides a notably effective score and it is really beautifully shot. I've admired the work of director Gore Verbinski since Mouse Hunt, and he does a beautiful job here. All of the acting is of a very high standard (Ruth Wilson is particularly affecting as a widow and mother).

Unfortunately, not since Thunderbirds has a film so profoundly misunderstood the basic appeal of its subject matter. Thunderbirds was a movie about an international rescue team which involved (almost) no international rescues. The Lone Ranger is a movie about a courageous masked law enforcer who does (virtually) no courageous masked law enforcing.

Tonto gets to behave heroically. The Lone Ranger's brother gets to behave heroically. The Lone Ranger's brother's wife gets to behave heroically. Even Helena Bonham Carter as a one-legged procuress gets to behave heroically. But the Lone Ranger himself is a patsy, stooge and fall guy for virtually the entire length of the film.

The basic mistake made here is that the script sets out to rebalance the relationship of Tonto and the Ranger. By way of striking a blow for Native Americans, they depict Tonto as savvy and sussed while the Ranger is a hapless chump. And this is hilarious. Right up to the point where it fatally sabotages the film.

At last, about two hours into the movie, poor Armie Hammer is finally allowed to behave like a hero. He comes thundering in on his white horse with the full William Tell Overture blaring away magnificently. It's a great, stirring moment. But much too late.

Other problems with the film: To reinforce the Native-rights message there is a really shocking and inappropriate scene of Indian braves being slaughtered wholesale by a Gatling gun. This belongs in an entirely different movie, and does serious damage to the tone of this one.

Then there's the way the story can't decide if it has a supernatural element or not. It begins to move in that direction (carnivorous rabbits — a delightful scene) but then loses its nerve.

Finally, even on a simple action-movie level, the script falls down. It begins with a spectacular chase scene on a train. And it ends with... another spectacular chase scene on a train. I mean, come on guys. I know it's the Old West, but what about river boats, paddle wheel steamers, hot air balloons, buffalo stampedes, wagon trains...? There are other cliches to explore when looking for action material.

(Image credits: The poster with the badge on it is from Films Index. The Helena Bonham Carter poster is from Disney Dreaming. The poster of Carter, Hammer and Depp is from Roger Ebert. The posters of Ruth Wilson and Depp are both from the excellent and useful Imp Awards. The picture of Johnny Depp in his Tonto makeup and the Kirby Sattler painting ('I am Crow') on which it was based are both from Gawker.)

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