It’s hard to grasp why The Lone Ranger was made. Do moviegoers crave a return to the old West? No. An adaptation of The Lone Ranger TV series from the ’50s? No. The Wild West glammed up with crashing trains and visual effects? No (remember Wild Wild West with Will Smith?). Does Johnny Depp saying he wants to make Native Americans proud justify Disney giving producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor) an estimated $250 million? Heavens no.
To be sure, this is an odd fit at an odd time. Regardless, The Lone Ranger is here. And it’s … OK. It’s a mix of pleasurable moments and others that try your patience with gaps in logic or tediousness. The end result is indifference, a reaction feared by studio execs because it means you will not discuss what you saw, meaning the movie will fall from public consciousness faster than you can say John Carter.
Bloated at 149 minutes — which is not a surprise given it was made by the same people behind the first three installments of Pirates of the Caribbean — director Gore Verbinski’s film starts in 1933 San Francisco. This sets up a flashback structure that fails to add both perspective and insight, but it does feature a Comanche named Tonto (Depp) as an old man whose English is worse than it was when he was younger, which makes no sense.
Tonto, now literally a living museum exhibit, recalls the origins of the Lone Ranger legend to a wide-eyed youngster (Mason Cook) wearing a mask. We’re soon taken to Colby, Texas, 1869. Railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) is overseeing the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and he plans to publicly hang noted killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) in the town square to celebrate its completion.
Then Butch escapes, Texas Rangers led by Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) set out to find him, and the rangers are killed. Only Dan’s brother John (Armie Hammer), heretofore a prosecutor but deputized for the ride, is accidentally left alive. John is discovered by Tonto, who had a vision “a great warrior” would help him on his travels. They reluctantly team up, and with John being the “lone ranger” still alive, well, the title comes naturally.
They head off on a quest to avenge Dan, which includes protecting his wife (Ruth Wilson) and son (Bryant Prince), going to a brothel led by a madam named Red (Helena Bonham Carter), and fending off a cavalry officer (Barry Pepper) on the take. We also learn about Tonto’s checkered past, which has at best a weak connection to the present.
The script by Ted Elliott, Justin Haythe, and Terry Rossio has a lot going on, so much, in fact, that it makes you wonder why it’s so convoluted. Worse, it doesn’t have anything to say. If you’re going out on a limb and making something that’s not a natural, easy fit with modern audiences, the themes need to be uniquely metaphorical of the world today. Sadly, you’ll find no such ambition here.
And yet, the rousing finale allows it to end on a high note and leave you with a positive impression (Rossini’s William Tell Overture, a.k.a. The Lone Ranger theme, has never been more needed, as it elevates the action to pure euphoria). The rest of the action is serviceably engaging, repeatedly highlighted by the beautiful white horse coming to the rescue. Add in a few laughs and the movie undeniably has its good moments.
Here’s what’s key in assessing The Lone Ranger: It’s only trying to entertain. It doesn’t care about paying homage to the TV series. The plot holes are glaring, and the performances are bland. But — and this is a big but — is there enough in the production design, costumes, action scenes, and sheer scale of it all to make it entertaining enough to see? Somehow, yes.