In what probably is the film’s funniest scene, Johnny Depp as the Comanche Tonto confers with the “spirit horse” Silver about the equine’s taste in heroes in director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s “The Lone Ranger.”
Reviews of “The Lone Ranger” have not been kind. As I type this sentence, rottentomatoes.com gives “Ranger” a “rotten” rating, with just 24 percent of critics having liked it — but tellingly, 68 percent of the website’s users have given the film a thumbs up.
“The Lone Ranger,” to be sure, is flawed, but its moments of brilliance make it worth seeing.
“Ranger’s” biggest flaw is its bloat. It’s OK to make a tw0-and-a-half hour film if you can keep our interest the whole time, but “Ranger” sags seriously in the middle. It would be interesting to see cuts of films that are improved not by restoring footage that was cut from the original releases, but by tightening up overlong films like “Ranger.” Sometimes less is a lot more.
The carnivorous rabbits in “Ranger,” for instance, could go. Even the scorpions. Hell, the filmmakers even could have stripped the Lone Ranger’s love interest (his brother’s wife) from the movie entirely and it wouldn’t have been a huge loss. (The actress who plays her, Ruth Wilson, does a fine job, but why the “mandatory” love interest? Might we mistake the violence-hating and book-loving Lone Ranger — who at the end of the film goes off with his same-sex companion Tonto — for a gay man otherwise? [Horrors!])
And as much as I like Helena Bonham Carter, she’s not given nearly interesting enough stuff to do in “Ranger” to justify the inclusion of her character. In “Ranger” Helena Bonham Carter is wasted as a one-trick pony, and she doesn’t have to appear in every film that Johnny Depp is in.
Speaking of Depp, “The Lone Ranger” more aptly might be called “The Lone Comanche,” because, as others have noted, this is Tonto’s and Depp’s film, not the Lone Ranger’s and Armie Hammer’s.
As adorable as the promising young actor Armie Hammer is, his Lone Ranger is not a born stud, but is a bookwormish nerd who stands in the shadow of his older brother (who is a born stud) and who needs Tonto’s guidance.
Indeed, without Tonto’s guidance, in this new version of the Lone Ranger, the Lone Ranger wouldn’t be the Lone Ranger. Tonto is not the Lone Ranger’s servile sidekick in this reboot; he is the Lone Ranger’s Yoda, the young, clueless hero-to-be’s reluctant mentor (although Yoda wasn’t this reluctant).
On that note, while some have dismissed Depp’s version of Tonto as a condescending and thus racist parody of Native Americans — I’ve even seen Depp’s Tonto compared to Stepin Fetchit — Depp’s Tonto is not a buffoon, but is a mixture of the shaman and the trickster, two important Native American archetypes, as I understand the Native American culture.*
And that is a definite promotion from the Tonto of yore. In Lone Ranger 2.0, Tonto is the hero, and the white man is not portrayed as the brave pioneer, as he was for decades in Westerns, but is portrayed as “wendigo,” the term for a Native American belief in a cannibalistic, demonic entity.
True, there’s only one actual cannibal in “The Lone Ranger” — its effective villain Butch Cavendish (played well by William Fichtner) — but “Ranger” makes the point that you don’t have to be an actual cannibal to be evil nonetheless, a point that is played out with its villain behind the villain, the railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson), who in his own hypocritical way is a cannibal much worse than Butch Cavendish.
Indeed, that is what the white man did to the Native Americans, so to speak: ate them up, consumed them, so that they were (and are), to a large extent, no more.
Again, this portrayal is progress, it seems to me, from the cowboys-and-Indians movies of before, in which the white men were always the brave heroes, the good guys, and the Indians always were the bad guys — standing in the way of what “rightfully” was the white man’s, you know, manifest destiny and God’s will and such (in a word, wendigo).
That said, in “The Lone Ranger” we get plenty of nostalgia from the Westerns of yesteryear, even if the story apparently is to take place entirely in Texas yet the film actually apparently was shot mostly in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. Indeed, Monument Valley, which is a prominent backdrop in “Ranger,” is not in Texas (but is in Utah and Arizona), and the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Summit in northern Utah, which is quite a distance from Texas, where “The Lone Ranger” very apparently has the transcontinental railroad completed.
But while “The Lone Ranger” mixes up the entire Southwest into one generic mass that’s supposed to be Texas (where it apparently barely even was filmed), it does apparently pay attention to some historical details, perhaps especially where the history of the transcontinental railroad is concerned; “Ranger” portrays the exploitation and the abuse of the Chinese immigrants who did so much of the hard, dangerous labor for which the white men, at the railroad’s completion, congratulated themselves with pride, pomp and circumstance.
And “Ranger” gives us a sense of what was lost when the white settlers decimated the Native Americans. Non-native Americans sorely could use the wisdom of the Native Americans right about now, but with the misinterpretation of Johnny Depp’s Tonto as a buffoon rather than as a hero in his own right (as a shamanistic trickster), non-Native Americans appear to be no closer to getting it now than they never have been.
Unfortunately, the worthwhile messages in “The Lone Ranger” do get a bit buried in all of the busy and loud action sequences that we inevitably are going to get in a Jerry Bruckheimer production released in the summer.
I want to see more Westerns like this, but I want them leaner, without all of the fat that is in the current version of “The Lone Ranger.”
I, for one, am up for a low-fat sequel.
My grade: B
*On that note, as to whether or not Native Americans should be outraged that the character of Tonto is played by Depp and not by a full-blooded Native American, I’ll leave that decision entirely to actual Native Americans.
I hate it when people (usually guilty white “liberals,” it seems) are “outraged!” on behalf of another group of people with whom they have little to even no actual contact.