“The Lone Ranger” has multiple personalities

“From the team that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean,” the poster proclaims, comes The Lone Ranger. In other words, Jack Sparrow as a Comanche shaman. Starring Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow, Sweeney Todd) as Tonto and Armie Hammer (the Winklevoss twins from The Social Network) as the title character, this is a movie where every Native American character is played by an actual Native American… except the most important one.

There were many fears this movie would be racist. After all, this is 2014; one would think that a non-white actor could be found to play a non-white character. In fact, the three main actors to play Tonto in the past were all Native Americans, even in the 1930s, when the first Lone Ranger films were produced. Johnny Depp apparently had a lifelong dream of playing Tonto, however, so he financed the film himself (in part) in order to make that dream a reality. So, it can be overlooked that a white guy is playing a Comanche, though with reservations.

Depp plays Tonto like a half-drunk halfwit. In other words, like Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This looks disturbingly like a caricature. Fortunately, the other Comanches in the movie point out that Tonto is a few feathers short of a full crow. Unfortunately, this is what the film industry calls “hanging a lampshade” on it, when there is a major plot flaw, someone in the movie points it out, thus acknowledging the flaw exists without remedying it. True, the Native Americans are played by Native Americans, but almost none of them have any lines, and the whole lot of them are pretty quickly sidelined for no real reason. True, there are a couple of black people in the movie, but (despite that, in 1869 in the West, they would be free and independent) both of them are servants. True, there are Chinese people in the movie played by actual Asians, but the only one who has any lines is a sinister old lady (as well as a servant) and therefore a stereotype. True, there is one Hispanic in the movie, but he is an incompetent bandit and therefore a stereotype. True, the bad guys are the whites – but the people of color are not good guys, they’re set pieces.

So is the movie racist? Yes, if not as blatantly as expected. Then again, subtle racism is the most insidious kind, which means it can often do the most damage.

There have been some movies with racist elements that have been given a pass because they are good movies. The Lone Ranger could have been one of those. It tries to be. It also fails. Miserably.

Granted, one can see the effort put in to make it good. There are a lot of nice homages to the story’s earlier incarnations, including much of the plot and various small details, such as where it was filmed. The problem is that, like many other recent films, The Lone Ranger does not know just what it wants to be, so it tries to be everything. In the end, four separate films emerge.

One is a comedy. This is the best of the three, and should have been the only film made. If this were a comedy (especially one in which Johnny Depp were, say, a crazy white man – say, a former pirate – who thinks he is a Comanche shaman), this would actually be a pretty good movie. The bloopers reel on the DVD supports it: all of the actors are genuinely funny, making the bloopers more enjoyable to watch than the actual movie. The best parts of The Lone Ranger are the comic elements. A scene where Depp tries to convince a horse of something, for instance, or the part where the Comanche chief explains that Tonto “is not quite right in the head”, are genuinely funny. Too bad that director Gore Verbinski didn’t stick to this model.

Another of the movies contained herein is a campy action flick. Gone are the days when it was “enough” for the hero to ride up alongside a train and climb onto the train from horseback. Now, he rides his horse along the tops of the train cars, or along rooftops, leaping from impossible heights and performing stunts which would kill man and horse alike in real life. The last half hour of the two-and-a-half-hour-long movie is taken up by a single absurd action sequence worthy of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Also, Helena Bonham Carter’s character has an ivory prosthetic leg which doubles as a rifle. These elements are fun, entertaining, and almost comical in their own right; it is impossible to watch things like these and still take them seriously.

Unfortunately, the third of the several Lone Rangers squished into this film is a dark, violent western. The villain is a cannibal who eats a man’s heart raw (offscreen, of course – this is Disney). The reason given for Tonto’s off-kilter behaviour is the massacre of his entire tribe, an event which he accidentally precipitated. An action sequence involving an out-of-control train also involves the horrific and totally unnecessary death of a nameless railroad worker, who is caught in the telegraph wires he is stringing and dragged shrieking under the locomotive. Such things are myriad, disconcerting, and very much out of place in the context of the other formulae in play here. The movie goes from hundreds of men being cut down with a Gatling gun directly to Silver, the Lone Ranger’s stallion, standing on a tree limb and Tonto remarking, “There something wrong with that horse.” The latter would normally be amusing, but coming directly after the preceding carnage, it feels like nothing more than a bad, ill-timed joke.

Herein lies the main failing of The Lone Ranger. If Verbinski had stuck to the successful formula used in Pirates of the Caribbean, marrying campy action with slapstick comedy, he would probably not have created one of the biggest box-office flops of 2013. Instead, he apparently wanted to copy Quentin Tarantino, who regularly pairs shameless camp with dark comedy and extreme gore, and so injected a heavy pall of gloom into a movie aimed at preteens and the “family friendly” market. The result, like a major plot element repeated several times during the film, is a trainwreck.

Interestingly, the entire movie is framed within a fourth picture, an entirely separate plot line about a boy in 1930s San Francisco meeting an aged Tonto at a circus freak show. In a narrative style similar to The Princess Bride, the kid interrupts the movie at various times throughout the film to ask old Tonto questions, as if the whole thing were just the product of a senile carnival Indian’s geriatric imagination. This is a very weird way of framing things, and it is any one’s guess why Verbinski chose to do it.

In short, this is a movie that trips over its own feet because, instead of sticking to a tried-and-true foxtrot, it tried to waltz and break dance at the same time. It ends up in a tangle of limbs on the dance floor, where it flails around for over two hours. By the time the performance is finished, the audience is simply relieved to have it over.

Though, the ivory gun-leg is actually kind of cool.
1.5 out of 5 stars. (The half of a star is for effort.)
Rated PG-13 for implied cannibalism, two massacres, subtle racism, and some other stuff way too dark for this movie.

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