The Lone Ranger finds Gore Verbinski reviving the classic radio and TV serial the only way he knows how: by way of an ironic, overstuffed adventure movie. As in Verbinski’s Pirates Of The Caribbean films and Rango, Johnny Depp serves as the weirdo emcee, leading the audience through a 149-minute bill of visual gags, left-field references, bit characters, John Ford and Sergio Leone impressions, and eccentric framing devices.
Armie Hammer stars as the title character, a prissy city boy who arrives in a company town by train, gets shot and left for dead, and is then saved by an Indian outcast who believes that Hammer is a ghost. Viewers who recognize this as the plot of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man will be rewarded with further references: a cannibalistic gunslinger, a cross-dressing outlaw in a bonnet, and the sound of Depp uttering a bowdlerized version of Dead Man’s signature line. Like Rango, The Lone Ranger substitutes pastiche for plot; the opening of Once Upon A Time In The West and the climax of Buster Keaton’s The General are both quoted extensively, and there are throwaway nods to everything from The Red Balloon to There Will Be Blood. Whatever imagery is original to The Lone Ranger tends to be imaginatively grotesque: a brothel-keeper who hides a gun in a prosthetic leg carved from whale bone, a brass band performing in plaster casts and slings, a drowning man being pummeled with rocks.
Though it lacks the sustained manic energy of Rango or Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Lone Ranger is crammed with enough fun matter—rollercoaster train chases, fourth-wall gags—to compensate; the slower scenes are at least interesting to look at, thanks to Verbinski’s detail-packed compositions. Hammer’s performance—always game, never mugging—certainly helps; his likable but buffoonish Lone Ranger is an essential part of the movie’s irreverent tone.
The Lone Ranger’s major weakness—aside from its running time—is its portrayal of Depp’s Tonto. It attempts to modernize the Lone Ranger’s sidekick—though not by changing the character, who remains a pidgin-speaking quasi-mystic. Rather, it changes his context; instead of being presented as an archetypal noble savage, Tonto is portrayed as an outsider, regarded by the other Comanche—who are more concerned with treaties and boundaries than animism—as mentally ill. He’s a sad pariah who has dealt with trauma by retreating into a fantasy world inspired by children’s bedtime stories. It’s a clever bit of revisionism, but it doesn’t entirely work, because, in trying to paint Tonto as a demented do-gooder, The Lone Ranger ends up falling back on the same Western iconography that it’s supposed to be subverting.