Et tu, Tonto?
Disney’s new live-action version of The Lone Ranger wants to be a lighthearted action-adventure and a sober-minded reflection upon the atrocities committed against Native Americans. But it doesn’t have the artistry — or the juggling skills — to accomplish both at the same time, and so it ends up being neither, a baffling war of tones in which no clear victor emerges.
It’s as though Steven Spielberg wanted to make Saving Private Ryan, and the studio insisted that he make it a World War II-era romantic comedy, with battle scenes intact but trimmed to achieve a PG-13 rating. It just doesn’t make sense to smash together two such extremely disparate perspectives, and smacks of a desperate attempt to avoid offending anyone.
Johnny Depp reeks of sincerity as Tonto, a character who has been upgraded from demeaning sidekick to full-fledged hero, albeit a vengeance-minded soul who must be shown The Civilized Way by The White Man. Armie Hammer is stuck with the thankless titular role, a peaceful, naive lawyer from The East named John Reid who is in for a rough ride Out West. He travels by train to the small town where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) serves as Sheriff. To form a fateful romantic triangle, John harbors unrequited love from younger days for his brother’s wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), but doesn’t seem terribly comfortable with Dan and Rebecca’s young son Danny (Bryant Prince).
Under orders from powerful railroad executive Cole (Tom Wilkinson), Dan is charged with tracking down notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner); the transcontinental railroad is about to be completed, and Cole wants to establish the town as a safe haven. Dan and his deputies, including John are ambushed; John survives with the reluctant assistance of Tonto.
Tonto, with a dead bird on his head and a ready supply of birdseed on hand to trade for goods with corpses, has his own reasons for seeking Cavendish. Depp’s Tonto is a solemn fellow, but he has a ready wit that is manifested in eye-rolls and tossed-off quips. (Far be it for this Tonto, however, to display sexual interest in anyone other than prostitutes.) At a certain point, the story stops so that Tonto’s personal history can be detailed and his motivations revealed; this then opens the door to ponderous, sometimes fairly explicit (for its PG-13 rating) depictions of horrifying butchery, followed promptly by a wisecrack or two to lighten the mood.
The dramatic portions of the movie are handled in a respectful, straightforward manner that is then undermined by an apparent fear that anyone might take it seriously. The net effect is that an innocent, if completely insensitive and ignorant, childhood game of “cowboys and Indians” has been rudely interrupted by adults who insist on sitting the boys down and teaching them a history lesson.
Gore Verbinski is too inelegant a director to do anything interesting with the two conflicting narratives; he is content to allow them to exist in alternating, irregular patterns, interrupted by action sequences that erupt based on the clock rather than the plot. He and Depp made a much more entertaining proto-Western with the animated Rango, which also had the grace to suck up less than half the time that The Lone Ranger spends lumbering along in its haphazard way.
On the positive side, Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” which is trotted out no less than three times, remains a spirited, uplifting piece of music, evidence that not everything needs to be modernized in order to retain its appeal for modern audiences. If only The Lone Ranger had learned that lesson.
The Lone Ranger opens wide across the Metroplex on Wednesday, July 3.