Aug 2, 2021
The Lone Ranger (2013)
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Amanda H. Enjoy!]
Hollywood re-imaginings of classic icons can be difficult. After all, if you stray too far from the character, you’ll get a mob of angry fans, and if you stick to the same old story you risk being boring and tired, and people will complain that what worked decades ago is no longer relevant today. Peculiarly, it seems both of these criticisms apply equally to Disney’s Lone Ranger reboot.
I was familiar with the Lone Ranger, even though I had never seen any of the previous adaptations of the original radio show. While the details of his origin differ from version to version, the Lone Ranger is usually the last survivor of a Texas Ranger posse ambushed by outlaws. Clinging to life, the Ranger is nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto. Donning a mask and riding a white horse, the Lone Ranger captures the outlaws and then continues to fight for justice.
The Lone Ranger has been the star of books and movie serials and a popular TV show, but the last attempt to bring him to the big screen was 1981’s ill-fated The Legend of the Lone Ranger, where the title character was played by a guy who never made a movie before or since, and whose lines were all dubbed over by another actor. But the character has continued to enjoy high name recognition, so it seems Disney felt the time was right to finally give him the big-budget blockbuster treatment.
The movie got terrible reviews and was a massive, expensive flop. In fact, with a budget estimated at around $250 million, it’s one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. But free of preconceived notions, the movie isn’t all that bad. While some parts of it are completely wrong for the character, with too much gore and crass humor, other parts are action-packed and actually funny.
Admittedly, the movie is overlong, overcomplicated, and I’m not completely sure of what it’s really about when all is said and done. But the same things could easily be said about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which were made by the same people. In fact, it’s clear Johnny Depp was trying to make his version of Tonto as quirky and memorable as Captain Jack Sparrow. That character is what made the Pirates movies a success, with Depp’s casting sort of like lightning in a bottle. It’s clear Disney and the filmmakers were hoping lightning would strike twice, but as is usually the case with lightning, it didn’t.
The movie starts with an unnecessary framing story set in 1933 San Francisco, with a young boy at a carnival sideshow dressed as a cowboy with a mask, munching on peanuts, and wandering around looking at wax figures of cowboys and Indians. Suddenly, one of the wax Indians comes to life, and turns out to be Johnny Depp done up in old age makeup. The elderly man introduces himself as Tonto and starts to tell the boy a story.
In his flashback, Tonto and the Lone Ranger gallop across the desert on their horses and then proceed to pull off a bank robbery. Back in the framing story, the boy calls BS on this, because he knows his hero the Lone Ranger would never commit a crime.
The film then flashes back even further to explain the bank robbery, though that explanation is going to be a good two hours in coming. We start out in Colby, Texas in 1869. The entire town is gathered at a busy train stop, waiting for a train. Aboard the train is a church group singing hymns, along with the handsome John Reid (Armie Hammer). Unbeknownst to John, also aboard the train is the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who’s being held in chains along with Tonto by federal marshals.
This first scene of John Reid establishes that he’s refined (his “bible” is John Locke), that the law is very important to him (he’s an attorney), and that he’s charming, but a bit goofy. He picks up a little girl’s doll and tries to toss it back to her, but ends up throwing it out the window.
In the other car, Tonto is watching Butch silently while he carries out his escape plan. Butch pulls up a board and gets a gun he somehow has hidden there. Tonto tries to warn the marshals, but he’s too late, and Butch shoots them both dead.
Meanwhile, Butch’s gang has overtaken the train, and John is the only one to notice, and the only one who hears the gunshots. He goes to investigate and finds Tonto and Butch in a standoff. Being a law-abiding citizen with a clear sense of right and wrong, he disarms them both, then introduces himself as the district attorney. But his plans are foiled by Butch’s gang, who free Butch and lock John and Tonto up together in chains.
Butch and the other outlaws bail out of the train, leaving it to speed towards the town at full steam, heading for an almost certain deadly wreck. We then get one of the few exciting scenes in the movie, where Tonto and John go about stopping the train while chained together. They end up separating the train from its engine, which derails violently. In the wreckage, a random piece of debris hurtles towards them and breaks their chains, and John, still the law-abiding citizen, arrests Tonto.
They’re soon found by John’s brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger, who’s kind of rough around the edges but a good guy. He’s married and has a son with Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), who clearly has a romantic past with John.
John and Dan and the other Rangers decide to go looking for Butch, and head off in search of him. They come across a white horse, which Dan calls a “spirit animal”, explaining he spent a lot of time with the Indians while John was gone. When the posse reaches a canyon, they’re ambushed by Butch and his bandits. The end result is a hero’s death for Dan, and John being left for dead.
But before John blacks out, he sees Butch cut out Dan’s heart and eat it. It’s not exactly shown in graphic detail or anything, but this is definitely not a movie for the little ones.
Tonto shows up, digs graves for the Rangers, trades feathers for the contents of the dead men’s pockets, and buries them all. But before he can complete John’s burial, that same white horse stands over John’s body. Tonto humorously argues with the horse, and ends up riding off with John’s body dragging behind the horse.
Tonto somehow brings John back from the dead, then makes a mask for him out of Dan’s vest, while melting the slain rangers’ badges into silver bullets. When John wakes up, he’s told that he’s a “spirit walker” and that’s why the horse bonded with him. Tonto doesn’t seem to be quite all there (he’s constantly feeding the dead bird he wears on his head for some reason) but John goes along with this all the same.
Tonto then explains that he’s been hunting Butch for a while, and John screwed up his plans on the train, but now he can make things right. And so the Lone Ranger is born, with his white horse, black mask, and mission for justice and vengeance.
Their search brings them to a whorehouse run by an ex-ballerina (Helena Bonham Carter) who lost her leg to Butch’s cannibalistic appetites. All the better for her to have a shotgun built into her fake leg, of course.
But they’re soon interrupted by an angry mob. Due to supposed Comanche attacks in the area (later revealed to be the work of Butch and his gang), they’ve come after Tonto, and eventually they run both him and the Lone Ranger out of town. The two think Rebecca might be in danger from the Comanches, so they rush to her house. There, they have a dramatic fight with Butch’s posse, who believe they’re fighting the ghost of John’s brother Dan.
Eventually, an actual Comanche tribe captures Tonto and the Lone Ranger, and buries them in dirt up to their necks. They’re attacked by scorpions, but then the horse saves them. The two then head to a silver mine to find Butch, because they’ve figured out that the fake Comanche attacks are part of a conspiracy to steal silver from Indian land.
A flashback reveals this conspiracy started when Tonto was a child. Apparently, some white men traded young Tonto a watch in exchange for learning the location of his tribe’s silver mine. Tonto carries the guilt for this, which is why he’s pursued Butch all these years.
Tonto and the Ranger capture Butch at the mine, but John convinces Tonto not to kill him so John can arrest him instead. Meanwhile, Rebecca and her son have been kidnapped by Butch’s men, but they escape into the desert. They end up on the train of railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who’s managing the nearby construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Eventually, it’s revealed that Latham Cole is really the villain, and he and Butch are brothers. They’ve been working together to take over the railroad company and plunder the silver mine to make themselves filthy rich. And that finally brings us to the bank robbery.
You see, the Lone Ranger is only robbing the bank to get into its vault, where Cole has stashed all his TNT and nitroglycerin. They use the explosives to destroy a railroad bridge, which sends a train carrying all the silver into a river. Cole ends up buried with his silver in the crash, while Butch gets taken out in another violent train collision.
The whole town celebrates the Lone Ranger’s heroic deeds, but John refuses to give his name, and simply rides off with Tonto on another adventure. He finally delivers his trademark line of “Hi-yo, Silver!” only to be met with scorn from Tonto. And back in the “present”, Tonto gives the boy a silver bullet, then walks off into the sunset.
As you can tell, this movie has way too much story for something that should really be a simple tale of a heroic cowboy battling outlaws. But again, long runtimes and overwritten stories didn’t exactly hurt director Gore Verbinski’s other big budget movies with Johnny Depp. It’s hard to say exactly why the Pirates films worked and Lone Ranger flopped. It may simply come down to the fact that pirates and life on the high seas still seem romantic, but thanks to decades of revisionist westerns, life in the Old West definitely does not.
Also, the Lone Ranger’s close association with wholesome 1950s TV, and the prominent use of the Disney name most likely gave a lot of families the very wrong impression that this movie was meant for children. The film is rather violent for its PG-13 rating, and contains just a bit more cannibalism than one would expect from a Disney-produced Lone Ranger movie.
There’s really too much of everything going on here, and despite the overcooked script, most of the characters aren’t fleshed out at all. The Lone Ranger comes off less a dedicated lawman and more of an amiable doofus (is Armie Hammer capable of playing any other kind of character?). And it’s easy to forget this is even a Lone Ranger movie until you hear the William Tell Overture in the movie’s final moments.
But overall, I enjoyed this film for its ambition, particularly in its visuals and in its action scenes. A more modest, scaled-down production probably would have worked better, but it’s still possible to appreciate this movie for what it is.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]