Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger is the latest from Disney and Gore Verbinski, director of the never-ending Pirates Of The Caribbean film series. 

The film was a troubled production from the get-go and it's a miracle it ever made it to the screen at all. There were numerous script changes and lots of money woes. At one point Disney even cancelled it until the budget was slashed and reworked. I wonder if they regret that decision now?

Sadly the movie's box office performance has fallen far short of expectations. The media has gleefully sunk its teeth into this statistic like a pit bull, declaring to anyone who'll listen that it's an unqualified bomb. I have to wonder if the poor box office is due to genuine disinterest on the part of the public or to the media endlessly poisoning moviegoers against it? 

For the record I don't think it's a bomb. It's definitely not great, but it was reasonably entertaining and I've seen far, far worse this summer. 

It's definitely better than the previous attempt at bringing the Ranger back to the big screen, in 1981's The Legend Of The Lone Ranger. That film was most definitely an unqualified bomb. It starred a young unknown named Klinton Spilsbury as the Ranger and effectively began— and ended — his acting career. Spilsbury's performance was reportedly so bad that all his dialog had to be dubbed by actor James Keach, and he never starred in another film again. 

I wonder if can ever be a great The Lone Ranger movie these days? I have a feeling the property's just too old fashioned for today's jaded audiences.

The film has an amazing cast and the two leads have a good chemistry between them. It's beautifully shot, with lots of John Ford-like panoramic vistas. On the down side, it attempts to tweak and play with the standard Western conventions, with mixed results. This is not your father's Lone Ranger. This is an attempt to update the character and make him relevant for our current cynical, snarky times.

It's also an unfocused and excessively long film, clocking in at a butt-numbing two and a half hours. If they'd tightened the focus a bit and edited it down to a trimmer size, they might have had a good film on their hands.

Although the film is called The Lone Ranger, this is most definitely Tonto's film. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poster. Just look at it! Notice how Tonto's entire body is featured, while amazingly the poor Lone Ranger is actually being shoved off to the side! Johnny Depp even gets top billing.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The Ranger has been the focus of the franchise for decades, so why not try spotlighting the sidekick for once? 

There's been much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the fact that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto in this film. Is it wrong for a caucasian to play a Native American? I'm afraid I'm not smart enough to answer that. 

Depp claims he has Native American ancestry through a great grandmother. The Comanche Nation even adopted him as an official member. That's good enough for me. If they're OK with it then why are everyone else's panties in a bunch? 

If it makes anyone feel better, there were several real Native Americans in the cast.

But just for the sake of argument, let's say it is wrong for Depp to play a Native American. So who else could we get to play Tonto? What popular Native American actor can we cast? The only one I can think of is Wes Studi, who's of the Cherokee Nation. He's 65 years old though, so that's probably not going to work. Hmm... what about... umm...

See? Even if you wanted to be politically correct, sadly there's no one else to pick. There are no famous Native American actors out there. Casting an unknown isn't an option either, because the studio wants someone who's a box office draw and will put butts in the seats. Like it or not, there was no chance in hell of a Native American ever playing Tonto in this film.

And if you're one of those who's gonna go all hardline and say it's absolutely wrong for a white man to play a Native American, then this kind of thing needs to stop as well. You can't just dip your toe in this particular pool; you've got to dive in all the way. If it's wrong for one group, then it's wrong all across the board.

MASKED SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
In 1933 a boy encounters an elderly Tonto in a San Francisco sideshow. Tonto tells the boy the story of how in 1869 he met lawyer John Reid, the man who would become the Lone Ranger. 

There's an evil guy who eats the hearts of his enemies and kills Reid's brother, Reid possibly dies and comes back to life, there's lots of shoot outs and explosions, whores with ivory legs that shoot bullets, silver mines, spirit horses and a rousing locomotive chase.

Pros:
• Whether it's politically correct or not, I enjoyed Depp's portrayal of Tonto. He brought some much needed humor to the proceedings, as there were definite traces of Buster Keaton in his performance, along with a little Jack Sparrow.

• Nice to hear the William Tell Overture again.

• John Reid is left for dead and when he wakes up he finds Tonto has placed him atop a rickety "spirit platform" on the peak of a mountain. If you're like me you saw the scene and thought, "Big deal, it's just another green screen shot!" Nope! The scene was completely real and filmed on location, with actor Armie Hammer perched atop an actual platform. He did have a safety line attached to him (which was digitally erased), but other than that everything in the scene is real. Kudos to the filmmakers and Hammer!

Cons:
• As regular readers of my blog are well aware, I am not a fan of the "Flashback Framing Device" in movies. Tonto tells the origin story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy in 1933, so from the very first frame we know nothing's going to happen to him.

Of course there was no way Tonto was going to die in the movie anyway, but the flashback structure cements it in our minds, preventing any possibility of dramatic tension. I really don't get why filmmakers continue to use this narrative technique.

• This film has a violent streak a mile wide. I bet it has a higher body count than most slasher movies. Bodies fall dead to the ground with alarming regularity. In particular the massacre of Tonto's entire tribe (including women and infants) seemed excessively brutal.

Then there's Butch Cavendish (played by a nearly unrecognizable William Fichtner), the film's main villain. He's a charming individual who eats the hearts of his victims. It's also implied that he removed the leg of brothel owner Red Herrington (played by Helena Bonham Carter). Yikes! A Disney movie this is?

• What was up with the cross-dressing outlaw? He spends most of the movie with a doily on his head and no one bats an eye. People in the Old West were apparently very tolerant of alternative lifestyles.

• Tonto wears a dead raven on top of his head throughout the entire film,  even in 1933. So why didn't it ever decay and rot away? Apparently Tonto is well-versed in the art of taxidermy.

Similarly, his face is covered in black and white paint all through the movie. At one point he and the Lone Ranger dive into the water to avoid an explosion. As they surface, Tonto's face paint remains perfectly intact. Maybe it's Mayballine?

• Speaking of the bird, Tonto believes it's his spirit animal and constantly feeds it corn all through the movie. It was slightly amusing the first time, but along about the forty seventh time he did so the gag started to wear a bit thin.

• The Ranger and Tonto enter Red Herrington's brothel to question her. When her answers aren't forthcoming, they try to blackmail her by pretending to be health inspectors, telling her they noticed several health code violations in her establishment. Nope! There was no Board of Health in 1869. Upton Sinclair didn't even write The Jungle until 1906. It was a mildly funny bit, but hopelessly anachronistic.

There are a lot of other time-related mistakes in the film as well: There were thirty seven stars on the American flag in 1869, not fifty. The Texas Rangers were disbanded prior to 1869 and weren't re-formed until 1872. Even then they didn't wear badges until the late 1870s. Coal wasn't commonly burned in locomotives until the 1870s. Twist-up lipstick was invented in 1923. During the 1933 prologue, "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" is playing in the background, but it wasn't recorded until 1935. Whoops!

• At one point a tribe of Native Americans bury the Ranger and Tonto up to their necks in the dirt and leave them for dead. Scorpions then rise up from the ground and crawl over their faces. The whole time the scorpions make little squeals and squeaking noises. I'm pretty sure scorpions don't make any noise at all.

I've seen this in many, many films featuring insects and arachnids. Bugs don't squeak! 

• During a mild disagreement the Lone Ranger whacks Tonto in the back of the head with a shovel (!). Fortunately this doesn't kill him and only knocks him out cold. When he regains consciousness, he winces and rubs the front of his head (my nephew pointed out this one).

• Near the end of the film there's a big shootout on a train between the Ranger and Butch Cavendish. Apparently Butch acquired one of those fancy "fifty shooters" that were introduced in 1869, because he fires a good thirty or forty rounds without ever once reloading.

These "infinite round revolvers" have been in movies since the silent era, but it was carried to absurd extremes here.

• The big set piece at the end of the film involves a chase between two trains on two separate tracks. It's an exciting and rousing sequence, full of near misses and thrilling stunts. Too bad it doesn't make a lick of sense though.

The chase begins at Promontory Point, the place in which the Union and Central Pacific railroads joined in 1869 (which is in Texas in the film, but in reality was in Utah. Whoops again!). There are two trains present, facing one other for the historic event. Tonto steals one of the trains and drives it off backwards. The villains pursue him in the other train and are almost immediately diverted to a parallel track and the chase begins.

OK, I get why the trains are on two tracks— it makes for an exciting sequence as they pass over and under one another and the characters leap from one train to another. But logically there's absolutely no reason for there to be two tracks running parallel to one another just a few dozen feet apart. They were at Promontory Point. These are the very first tracks to ever stretch this deeply into the country! There's no way there would already be another set of tracks in the area, especially so close together. Thrilling, yes. Believable, no.

Overlong, overly violent, but not the train wreck the media wants you to believe. With a little script polishing and some strict editing, it could have been great. I give it a B-.

3 comments:

  1. Well done once again Bob. I love your movie reviews and I think you and I have similar viewpoints on many of them. I REALLY wanted this movie to be great so I could have lots of Lone Ranger sequels and toys and whatnot but alas, it's not to be. I thought the movie had almost all the right parts but needed to be rearranged and trimmed as well. I like the designs of the characters and I agree that people making a big deal out of Johnny Depp playing a native American need to look at the bigger picture. He is an actor playing a part. Nobody cries foul when a Cuban plays an Italian in a movie. I actually saw this movie twice. My family all enjoyed it but on the second viewing, I was able to sit back and relax knowing what I was getting. I thought it was a lot of fun. Hi-Yo Silver!!

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  2. Bob, it's rare that you give a film higher than a B-, and your median is probably a C. Given that you aren't too keen on modern films ... why bother going at all? Seems like you're just banging your head against the wall. (That's my approach. I see a new film maybe every 3 years. Meanwhile, I've got about 400 recorded off of TCM to watch. Even the duds from the 40s are better than most of the new films today, IMHO.)

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  3. @Jon: While there probably won't be any Lone Ranger sequels, there are some toys out there! NECA's made some decent looking action figures based on the movie and there are even a couple of Lego sets out there right now.

    The last few weeks I've heard people say The Lone Ranger is "the worst movie they've ever seen." Whenever I hear people say that, it makes me think they've seen exactly two movies in their life-- this one and one they liked better. I've seen movies that would make these people curl up into a ball.

    The Lone Ranger wasn't great, but it was entertaining and nowhere near as bad as people are saying.

    @Dr. OTR: You're right, I am pretty hard on movies these days, but that's because I know it's possible for studio to make better movies than they do. Trying to appeal to the widest possible audience just results in a watered down film.

    As to why I keep going to movies even when I know they're probably going to suck-- in a word, HOPE. I keep hoping that if I stick it out I'll find a diamond in the pile of crap that's out there.

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