Monday, April 7, 2014

The Lone Ranger (2013)

"It reminds me of a critic who called Flashdance a 'toxic dump.' Ten years later [the critic] said, 'this is really a good movie. I missed it.' I think [The Lone Ranger] is going to be looked back on as a brave, wonderful film."
- Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, to Vulture, on July 29, 2013 

The Lone Ranger was not the kind of flop that Walt Disney Pictures needed, but it wasn't one that would necessarily hurt the company either. On the one hand, the company can afford a flop: where this film and 2012's John Carter failed, the massive successes of The Avengers and Frozen, plus the numerous other ventures Disney is involved in, helped balance things out. On the other hand, they were dealing with a film that was in peril before cameras even began rolling. In 2011, the production was essentially cancelled, three years after Johnny Depp had signed on to play Tonto, because the budget was ballooning out of control. After agreeing to significant cuts, the film finally began shooting in 2012, but was marred by wildfires, weather, a chickenpox outbreak and the death of a crew member. Having finally finished principle photography, the film was slated for a prime release date over the Fourth of July weekend. It opened in second-place, with roughly $48 million - about one-third of what first-place film Despicable Me 2 made. Against a production budget of $215 million, the film's total domestic gross came in just over $89 million.

It seems fitting, then, that the first major setpiece in the film is an actual train wreck.

More after the jump.
The Lone Ranger is a very curious film, because it tries very hard to be a number of things, succeeding at some while failing at others, often at the same time. The plot of the film covers the origins of the Lone Ranger's (Armie Hammer) partnership with Tonto (Johnny Depp), as the latter saves the former from a potentially deadly wound. Together, they team up against outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), but in the process uncover a much deeper scandal that could irrevocably change the Wild West. From there, it's cowboys versus Comanche versus railway barrens versus the U.S. Army, with the fate of the West at stake.

All of that is fairly standard action-adventure setup, and it shows what the studio was thinking when they put it into production: The Lone Ranger was intended to be the next Pirates of the Caribbean. On the surface, the similarities are pretty obvious. Johnny Depp once again stars, playing a character in heavy makeup who's more than a little odd. Gore Verbinski returns to the director's chair, with POTC writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio co-writing the script (with an additional credit from Justin Haythe). Even the release dates are similar: thanks to those numerous setbacks, The Lone Ranger (July 3, 2013) was released almost exactly 10 years to the day of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (July 9, 2003).

What really makes the film that franchise's spiritual successor, though, is the way that it attempts to create a sense of rip-snorting adventure by turning the setting into a open-space amusement park. POTC, at least, had the benefit of being based on an actual ride, and successfully turned the colonial Caribbean into an exciting, supernatural world of swashbuckling shenanigans and heroic daring-do. The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, attempts to recreate that sensibility in the Old West, and on paper it seems like a great idea. There are plenty of films to draw from that depict the West as a world of danger, and there's great opportunity to toy with the conventions of the Western to turn it into a modern blockbuster. It even opens with a framing device set in early-20th century San Francisco, where a kid hears the story told by Tonto himself at a carnival.

Unfortunately, the film stumbles in the execution. By framing the story from Tonto's perspective, it does take steps to subvert the stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns. It's still a problematic representation, no doubt, but making Tonto an outcast from his tribe for having trusted a (white) American soldier does present a more complicated version of the character. But where Tonto is given layers, the Lone Ranger himself - aka John Reid - is dull and one-note, and the film doesn't seem to realize this. There's nothing inherently wrong with an origin story, but the film is way too invested in Reid's despite it slowing the film down in it's mediocrity. Even at two-and-a-half hours long, it shouldn't take a full hour for Reid to don his mask. That's the film's ultimate sin: it thinks the wrong things are interesting, and spends too much time trying to make a character who barely even seems like a real person "likable." It's POTC trying to convince the audience that Will Turner is far more interesting than Jack Sparrow.

Similarly, the film tries to stuff so many various plots and villains into its running time that it doesn't have enough time to really invest in any of them. The building of the railroads, and the plot involving them, doesn't really seem to matter until it suddenly does, and by then the bad guys involved are so underdeveloped that they don't really seem threatening. Too often, these various bits seem to be included because they happened in the actual history. "The railroads were being built, connecting the nation unlike ever before, so here's something about that." "The U.S. Army was combating various Native American tribes over land, so let's toss that in as well." The latter is particularly unfortunate: in trying to address a legitimate travesty of western expansion, the film mostly just skims over it as an action piece and treats that as an examination of injustice. Likewise, the abuse of Chinese workers on the construction of the railroads is briefly referenced, but never dwelled on.

This isn't to say that the film needed to be a very serious examination of the relationships between these groups, or that it needed to devote itself to addressing the genocide of Native Americans by the U.S. Army. Obviously, this is meant to be fun. That's why it's so jarring that the film attempted to include these elements. It tries so hard to be all of these different things, and in doing so it distracts from the film's original intention. As a point of comparison, POTC mostly skipped over the Caribbean slave trade, but only because that wasn't part of the story it meant to tell. The Lone Ranger, though, wants this to be part of its story, and as a result it fumbles in being a straight-through blast like POTC and approaching this topic with sensitivity.

But the film isn't a complete wash. When it focuses on delivering exciting action setpieces, it's a marvel to behold. In particular, the third act features a thrilling, imaginative chase involving two trains running concurrently, set to the sounds of the "William Tell Overture." This sequence does just about everything right. It incorporates Verbinski's stunning visual homages to John Ford's Monument Valley Westerns while also paying homage to Buster Keaton's The General and Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Like the POTC movies, the action is madcap and often ridiculous, but is coherently shot and edited, ensuring that everything happening is easy to follow. It's impressive filmmaking, accomplishing everything the rest of the film failed at.

Will history end up vindicating The Lone Ranger, as Bruckheimer claimed in the quote that opened this review? Not likely. While it's not a complete disaster, the film ultimately fails at being fun and exciting, instead being bogged down by mediocre characterization. By the time it actually does pick up, it's far too late. C-

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