Late in the movie there’s a scene where a child is playing with a toy train set. As the little model ’rounds the corner, the boy pushes the accelerator, and the toy derails, crashing onto the floor. The railroad owner, who’s lodging the boy, gives him a light talking-to, “Slow it down at the curves, speed up on the straight tracks.” The boy in turn gives him a look that shouts But crashing it is the whole point! No other scene better sums up the movie.
It’s Disney. And Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp and Hans Zimmer and all those cogs and moving pieces that make it big and loud and hard charging like the locomotives The Lone Ranger delights in crashing, plunging, derailing, and blowing up. And when it is, it’s a lot of fun. Yeah, the trailer’s given a lot away (which has, sadly, been a major problem for many summer blockbusters), but there’s a lot more that isn’t spoiled.
As for the spoilers in this review, I’ll try to keep them to the general plot. The movie opens in 1933 at a carnival in San Francisco. A tyke named Will, dressed in the garish outfit of the ’30s Lone Ranger, wanders through a makeshift museum of the Wild West, one of those galleries with big cardboard dioramas and plaques that state the obvious (“Buffalo: King of the Plains”). Munching on his carny peanuts, he stops at a display of an elderly Comanche, and the camera lingers just long enough to let you know that something’s not quite right with…
“Kemosabe?” the figure asks, and the startled boy confesses that he’s not the real mysterious masked man. The figure, again in turn, reveals that he’s the actual Tonto, and begins to recount the origin of his partnership with the Lone Ranger — beginning with the time they robbed a bank.
After that bit of confusion (because they are, after all, the good guys, and good guys don’t do things like rob banks), Tonto goes into the real origin, starting with the first time he met John Reid (Armie Hammer), a lawyer heading to Texas to meet up with his brother, famed Texas Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale). The train also happens to be carrying Tonto (Johnny Depp) and notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), making it a target for Cavendish’s gang, who spring their boss and derail the train.
John and Tonto survive the wreck, Tonto’s imprisoned (for being an Indian, apparently), and John and his brother, along with Dan’s group of law men, head off to recapture Cavendish. The recapture goes spectacularly wrong, leaving John as the only survivor. he meets again with Tonto, who has, somehow escaped from prison, and after a spiritual awakening and the adoption of a new identity, the two team up, Tonto having his own vendetta against Cavendish.
Screenwriters Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean) have the sense to follow the old radio dramas where plot was important in so far as it excused action. They do get carried away in details, and many of the setups have a lackluster payoff, but where they really shine is in the set pieces — opening with a very impressive sequence on the train that they’re able to top in the finale, and in between there’s plenty of escapes, shootouts, cavalry versus Indian battles, dallies in brothels (featuring Helena Bonham Carter at her most jaw-droppingest), spirit quests, and all of played with, my personal favorite, humor.
I laughed more at this than any other comedy this year. And even though Depp is the big draw, the best jokes are visual gags — in particular the second appearance of a brass band near the end of the film, though there’s a nice beat between Tonto and a number of Chinese workers where they share a mutual hatred of a specific race.
At times it can be confusing, and that seems to be the most consistent problem of the Bruckheimer/Verbinski films. While I like the framing story, there’s some odd omissions that will allude to something significant later (such as Tonto’s jailbreak) but then go unexplained. If they’re going out of their way to play with an unreliable narrator, they could have done more. And the tease of the bank robbery seems more a setup to tease the theme song than have any real bearing on the story (why they’re there is important, but what they’re there for doesn’t really need to be there). Though the theme song is indeed paid off — and good on them for not going overboard with a remix — there’s some added brass, but for the most part they leave William Tell unmolested. It doesn’t quite fit into the action of the whole scene, but, really who the hell cares? And I do think the final action sequence can be very confusing, but it may be resolved on a rewatch.
Really, this is just a fun summer movie that’s actually fun. I haven’t even mentioned Tom Wilkinson, who’s so great to see anytime he’s on screen, and Barry Pepper, who steals the show from Depp with only a slice of the material to work with. The only disappointment is Ruth Wilson as the partial love interest. However, I think that’s the fault of the screenwriters and not the actress’s skills — her relationship with Hammer is touched on but never takes center stage. Again, that’s not a bad thing — I’ll take more action over thin romance.
Finally, there’s the eggshells. The old radio shows were made before our current revisionism, and it’s interesting to see how the writers try to reconcile that — or at least attempt to be politically correct without being overtly political. The solutions tend to be simple — a character is crazy or a treaty is broken or this group is mislead — but fortunately they’re not distracting. And they do make you appreciate how well it all is pulled off. Yes there are missteps and excesses and dead-ends and all that, but hey, if The Lone Ranger ain’t cinematic gold, it’s sterling silver.