Playing the Lone Ranger before he knows how to be the Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer channels Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent while Johnny Depp as an exasperated Tonto looks on in dismay and Helena Bonham Carter as a ballerina turned madam looks decidedly unimpressed by our hero to be in The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski’s noisy and messy but exuberant and likeable and, at heart, true to the spirit retelling of the story of the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains and his faithful Indian companion as they begin their fight for law and order in the early West.
They were both great horses, but the difference between Roy Rogers' Trigger and the Lone Ranger's Silver was that Trigger was well-trained. Silver just knew.
The Ranger never had to call him or ask him or hardly even explain. Silver had it figured out on his own and was often a step ahead.
Trigger was born to be a cowboy's horse, the King of the Cowboys' horse, but still, basically, a work horse which means a tamed horse.
Silver was wild. The Ranger did not raise him, capture him, or tame him. They found each other or, possibly, Silver was always there waiting. Horse chose his rider and that was the sign.
Silver is just one of the things the movie The Lone Ranger gets right about the Lone Ranger, and he nearly steals the show. He does things we devoted fans of the old TV series always knew he could do if budget and time had allowed, chief among them thinking for himself. But his best and most important trick in this movie is helping us keep in mind that The Lone Ranger is a Lone Ranger movie. In fact, there are times when he appears to be the only one involved in making the film who remembers that.
Whenever director Gore Verbinski seems to be losing track of his story and his characters in the noise and cgi-ed confusion of this exuberant, violent, wild, convoluted, cheerful, likeable, enjoyable mess of a movie, Silver arrives on the scene to save the day.
“There is something very wrong with that horse,” Tonto observes at one point.
No, we think, there is something very right about him.
That horse, we know, can only be ridden by one man.
Sure enough. One of the movie's central conceits is that the young lawyer John Reid who we know is going to become the Ranger is emphatically determined not to become the Lone Ranger. But throughout the movie, no matter how much he's insisting it’s not going to happen, he keeps unconsciously reaching out to Silver, and every time he does he becomes a little bit more the Ranger until...
You can guess until what and I reckon you're already hearing those first bugle blasts from the William Tell overture in your head.
Durn tootin' you are.
With The Lone Ranger Verbinski, who directed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the cartoon western Rango, which also starred his Tonto, Johnny Depp, hasn't made as good a Western as he made a pirate movie with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl or even as good a Western as he made with Rango. But he hasn't made as bad a movie as he made with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, either.
That’s not saying it’s a good movie.
It’s all over the place in tone and style. There’s too much to the plot and too little. The very real humor is offset by the very real and gruesome violence. Except for the Ranger and Tonto, and Silver, all the characters are a mile wide and an inch deep. The shootouts, the fights, the stunts, the train wrecks, and daring escapes are noisy and messy, although at least they have structure---they scan. You can follow the action, tell who's where at the moment and where they're headed--- and they fit each stage of John Reid's development into the Lone Ranger and the Ranger and Tonto's development into true partners.
But for me, questions of good and bad got lost in the fun and excitement.
I liked it. I had a good time. But I'm easy.
I loved the Lone Ranger and Tonto when I was a kid. A very little kid. They were the highlight of my Saturday morning cartoon and serial watching. But, while I never stopped loving them (and I love them still), I outgrew them. The ideal "cowboys" of my older kidhood, the two who stayed with me, were a gambler and a secret agent, and Bret Maverick and Jim West lived by very different codes than the Ranger's, codes that allowed me a peek into the grown-up world.
It was a kids western. Simple plots. Simple dialog. No complicated questions about right and wrong or conflicted emotions. No angst. No sex. Minimal violence. Even as kids' fare it was tame. Disney's Zorro and Davy Crockett offered more sophisticated story arcs and showed a deeper understanding of the complexity of life and the vagaries of human nature.
And that's a problem.
How do you turn the hero of a radio show created for children in the 1930s into the hero of a big budget summer blockbuster attractive to the 21st Century adults you need to draw into theaters to make back all the money you poured into making the film?
How do you even make him make sense to that audience?
Verbinski clearly loves and understands the Ranger and Tonto much more than Zack Snyder showed he loved or understood Superman in Man of Steel but he doesn't have nearly as much material to work with.
There's not a lot to the Lone Ranger myth. The mask, the silver bullets, the faithful Indian companion, a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-yo, Silver! Away! Cue the bugles and that's it, your work here is done. There are no iconic adventures after the origin story, no supporting players after Tonto as important or familiar as Lois and Jimmy and Perry White. No Lex Luthor or General Zod. No recurring villains of any note, at all.
What Verbinski has done is filled in with images, tropes, and direct steals from other TV and movie Westerns. High Noon. True Grit. 3:10 to Yuma. Little Big Man. Lonesome Dove. Deadwood. The Good,the Bad, and the Ugly. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Searchers. Probably many more I didn't catch. (Verbinski did the same thing but to more comic effect in Rango.) Some of these are in there deliberately and explicitly. Others are there indirectly because the movies Verbinski references referenced them. This isn't storytelling by evocation. Verbinski isn't cheating like Snyder did in Man of Steel. The Lone Ranger tells its own story. The allusions and quotes don't stand in for a narrative. They're in there to give scope and context and to place this story within a larger story and a larger mythology.
Take what had to be the most deliberate and to me the most striking references.
Since he was filming in Monument Valley, John Ford's favorite location for his Westerns, Verbinski couldn't avoid allusions to The Searchers. But he doesn't allude. There are at least two blatant and brazen visual quotes. And Verbinski means for us to use the reference for insight into the Reid family. John Reid is a reversed Ethan Edwards, coming home to Texas not on the run from the law and civilization but to help bring both to his home state. But he also comes home to take his place in a corner of the same sort of love triangle as Ethan's in with his brother and his brother's wife and he winds up riding the same trail to vengeance.
How far down that trail will he ride? Not very, of course. He's going to become the Lone Ranger, after all. But he's going to ride farther with more complicated feelings about it than you might expect, unless you caught the allusions to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that accompanied Reid's entrance into the movie. Reid has some Ethan Edwards in him, but he's got more Rance Stoddard, the naive, idealistic, and bookish lawyer played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie that famously includes the line "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", which has implications I better not get into or we'll be here all day. The big difference is that in Reid's first encounter with his Liberty Valance, he's capable of fighting back, fairly effectively.
Well, like I said, he's going to become the Lone Ranger, after all.
The other thing Verbinski has done to give the movie heart and depth and humor is draw out the process of John Reid's becoming the Lone Ranger.
It's not just the audience who might have trouble accepting the notion of a daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains fighting for law and order. Reid himself rejects it as flat out ridiculous and refuses to wear the mask.
And this isn't the case of a conflicted hero-king turning down the crown thereby proving that he is the right one to wear it. Reid simply doesn't see the point.
For one thing, Tonto, whose idea this is, is trying to dragoon him into a life he's already turned away from. His murdered brother Dan, the Texas Ranger, was leading the life of the quintessential movie Western lawman, solving all problems with his guns and his fists and feats of violent derring-do. John, who was raised by his brother's side and, we discover, learned everything Dan did about riding and shooting and fighting, and maybe learned it all better, has long since decided that he can do more good with his brains than with a six-shooter.
Also, he has a very strong sense of who he is and what he wants to do with his life and becoming the Ranger means literally giving up his identity. Once he puts on the mask, there will be no taking it off again. There'll be no more John Reid. Only the Ranger. But Reid has only a vague sense of that as his fate.
What really causes him to resist is that this is Tonto's idea and Tonto might very well be crazy.
Hard to say.
Tonto has a plan of his own, that's certain, but he refuses to explain that plan to Reid or, as it happens, to us.
So, this is how the movie unfolds, with Tonto trying to impress upon Reid the need of his becoming the Lone Ranger and teaching him how to go about it and a very skeptical Reid slowly, very slowly, coming around but on his own terms, while the two of them ride, fight, shoot, connive, finagle, and talk their way into and out of scenes and plots from all those other Westerns.
Worked for me.
This approach raises the question, How do you fit Lone Ranger into the universe of those Western? Note that all the ones on my list are revisionist Westerns. They were made as repudiations of the simple good guy vs bad guy formulas of the Saturday morning serials the Lone Ranger grew out of. If John Reid arrives as a reversed Ethan Edwards, Ethan arrives, not as a reversed Lone Ranger, specifically, but as a sardonic commentary on the Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and their fellow do-gooders. John Wayne enters The Searchers wearing a black hat. How does the Ranger fit into a world where John Wayne plays a good guy who's a bad man?
The answer is he doesn't. He can't. Unless..
Things undergo a fundamental change.
Which they do. The Ranger in himself is the change.
And that's half the fun, watching Reid start to believe, despite himself, that he is the Lone Ranger and through pure and pure-hearted conviction forcing the people around him to believe it too and then seeing them react accordingly. This includes the bad guys.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto are comic heroes. Comic as in the opposite of tragic. They are bestowers of happy endings. They bring order by re-ordering the towns and communities they visit. Under this new order the civilizing and humanizing influences of law, virtue, and common decency are more powerful than lawlessness, selfishness, and vice, and villains are reduced to what they really are, losers, thugs, louts, and posturing buffoons.
In The Lone Ranger, the villains who are introduced as frightening grotesques and monsters of pure evil are turned one by one into clowns and cartoons as they confront the Lone Ranger and it dawns on them exactly what they're up against. It's amusing to watch William Fichtner's slimy and literally bloodthirsty Butch Cavendish, who appears to have been rejected by Larry McMurtry from one of his Western novels for being too creepy and ghoulish, get slowly erased from the movie's final act and replaced by a cleaned-up, gussied-up, dumbed-down double of himself in the form of Barry Pepper's parody of Richard Mulligan's parody of Custer in Little Big Man.
Something similar happens to Tom Wilkinson's corrupt and calculating railroad man who starts off smooth, suave, intelligent, and persuasive in his evil but by the last act is almost visibly resisting the urge to twirl his mustache. And in the end he's replaced by a goofily grinning, goggle-eyed Stephen Root as his obviously conniving and oafish mini-me.
Evil doesn't disappear from the land. But it can be seen for what it is and stood up to and faced down.
The trick Verbinski pulls off is to place us in a world where we soon wish there was someone as boringly decent and dully noble and straight-forwardly heroic and competent as the Ranger and then make us believe, at least for the little while it takes for him and Tonto to arrive to save the day, that our wish has come true.
This only works because he has cast a near perfect Ranger.
Armie Hammer isn't called upon to play the Lone Ranger, exactly. At a certain point he has to start looking convincingly like the Ranger, which isn't simply a matter of putting on the mask and the white hat and mounting Silver. The Ranger has to carry himself, in the saddle and on foot, with an ease and sense of calm that both commands immediate respect and at the same time comforts and reassures. The Lone Ranger is in certain respects a prototype for Batman---the origin in a quest for vengeance, the mask that frightens criminals and baffles lawmen, the secret cave, the habit of assuming disguises---but in spirit he's more a brother to Superman. Hammer conveys all that, when he puts on the mask for real and for good.
But his real job is to create a character who would make a convincing Lone Ranger once he comes around to the idea that he needs to be the Lone Ranger, someone boringly decent, dully noble, heroically competent, yet somehow still immensely likeable and above all persuasive in his goodness. Hammer spends most of the movie as John Reid, playing him as a combination of a young Jimmy Stewart and a live-action Dudley Do-right. His Reid is a born hero and all-around good guy but also a bit of a dope. He's often stupid in the way very smart people can be when they refuse to acknowledge that the world doesn't behave in what they believe is an intelligent fashion. Hammer earns his laughs this way, but he allows himself to come across as a goof in the early going because he knows where things are headed and he trusts us to notice that he has Reid growing into the Ranger the whole time.
And Hammer visibly physically grows on screen. He's studied Christopher Reeve's dual portrayals of Clark Kent and Superman and what Reeve did in seconds whenever Clark took off his glasses, Armie does over the course of the film. His carriage and demeanor change. His back straightens, his shoulders broaden, his chin lifts, his voice deepens, and his gaze focuses and his eyes light up.
But this isn't to say he's growing up like Tony Stark does in Iron Man 3 and Jim Kirk and Clark Kent are supposed to in Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel but don't. Reid enters the movie as a real grown-up, just a naive and inexperienced one who isn't prepared for what's about to happen to him.
Growing here means learning. And here's something else the movie gets right about the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Reid learns from Tonto how to be the Ranger.
Conventions of the time made it hard for the TV series to get this across explicitly, but fans who recognized that the models for the Lone Ranger and Tonto were Hawkeye and Chingachgook understood it implicitly. The relationship between Cooper's heroes was more than a friendship. Chingachgook was a father to Natty Bumpo.
Tell me you haven't read Deerslayer.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto are more like brothers and in this movie Tonto is definitely the big brother.
Johnny Depp as Tonto is a problematic concern, starting with the problem of casting a white guy as an Indian. But there'd have been no Tonto to cast anyone as because there'd have been no movie without Depp in a starring role and he's too old and too short and too Johnny Depp to play the Ranger.
But even when you get past that there is the weirdness of his conception of Tonto.
Some of this is just Depp being Depp. There is, however, method in his madness, beginning with the possibility that Tonto is mad. Reid certainly thinks he is. And if you know Tonto’s history, you know he has reason to have become unhinged through grief, anger, and guilt. On the other hand, Tonto is on a mission, secret and private, and what we’re seeing is---possibly---a disguise he’s adopted to help him go about his mission. It allows him to pass, not unnoticed, but not taken seriously. To most white people he’s just that crazy Injun. To other Indians, he’s just that crazy Tonto.
Whichever’s the case, and it may be that he’s both mad and calculating, what he has done is set himself apart. He is without a tribe, without a people. His rituals and religion are all his own, invented when he was ten years old as both penance and consolation. What Depp is playing then is a man alone and feeling it. It may be that he needs Reid to become the Ranger to help him on his mission. But it's certainly the case that he needs the Ranger to exist because he needs him for a friend.
How’s it go in the Lone Ranger’s code? “If you want a friend, be a friend”?
Among the other things that dawn slowly on Reid is that Tonto is asking to be his friend.
And that’s the big thing the movie gets right about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Tonto is not the Ranger’s sidekick. They are partners. They are brothers. They are friends.
Depp and Hammer’s portrayal of the development of that friendship gives The Lone Ranger its heart. And much of its comedy. They’re very funny together. The friendship doesn’t come easy and Depp and Hammer find the humor in their characters’ irritations, exasperations, misunderstandings, infuriations, and frustrations but while still showing the growing affection and respect that keep them together despite Reid’s wanting out of the nonsense and Tonto’s dismay at Reid’s continual failure to learn his lessons and start living up to his expectations.
Wilkinson, Fichtner, and Pepper make a fine team of villains. Helena Bonham Carter as the one-legged ex-ballerina turned madam Red Harrington---her name’s a joke I suspect Verbinksi had left over from Rango---makes the most of her one big scene in a set piece reminiscent of but not quite as neatly composed or funny as the Tortuga scenes in The Curse of the Black Pearl. As John Reid’s heroic but gruff and taciturn brother Dan, James Badge Dale does a good job of making us understand why he’d have been Tonto’s first choice to be the Lone Ranger and why Tonto would have been making the wrong choice. Ruth Wilson as the nominal love interest is mostly there to show off her pout and her freckles, both of which are lovely.
Like I said, Silver---well, the horses playing Silver---come close to stealing the movie.
There aren’t any other characters to speak of, a real weakness. The background characters are mostly just that, background. I keep coming back to Rango, but it wasn’t the case there and I wonder why Verbinski didn’t follow his own example. The people the Lone Ranger and Tonto help ought to be seen as persons in their own rights and they were in the TV show.
But Hammer and Depp carry the day. This is their movie and their story, the Lone Ranger and Tonto’s, although when you get down to it, more Tonto’s story than the Ranger’s.
Which brings me to the framing device.
The movie opens with a hundred year old Tonto telling his story to a young fan of The Lone Ranger radio show in 1933.
I feel dumb for being put off by this at the start because it shouldn't have taken me even a short while to get the allusion.
Little Big Man.
It’s Tonto telling his story the way Jack Crabb told his story.
His story. Tonto’s story. The survivor’s story.
It’s the story of how he invented a hero and then came to believe in his own invention and to love him and to rely on him.
And it’s a grand and glorious story but also a sad one in its way because it’s being told from so great a distance in time and we see that the storyteller has long outlived his friend and how much he misses him and wants him back. How much he’s counting on the boy to remember the story and keep it and the Ranger alive.
And that’s where Verbinksi leaves us, missing the Ranger and wanting him back, wanting them both back. We want to return with them now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. We want to hear it begin again…
"A fiery horse with the speed of light, a hearty Hi-yo, Silver! The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride again…"
Oliver Mannion’s one sentence review: “A better Superman movie than this summer’s actual Superman movie.”
Here's something that made me happy. Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, who played the Lone Ranger and Tonto in the TV show, were good friends in real life. By way of Leonard Maltin, a tribute to Silverheels by Moore's daughter Dawn.
And from the Smithsonian: How the Ranger's mask found its way into the national Museum of American History.
Since I brought it up, my review of Man of Steel.
The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinksi, screenplay by Justin Haythe and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, and Barry Pepper. Rated PG-13. Two hours and twenty-nine minutes. Now in theaters.