Why did ‘The Lone Ranger’ flop? With a budget of $215 million, its domestic total as of the time I’m writing this review (8:55 p.m. EST on August 1, 2013) is $85 million. Ouch! Why would Disney take such a gamble? The highest grossing Western of all time is ‘Dances with Wolves’ which grossed $184 million ($31 million less than the cost of ‘The Lone Ranger’) – this, of course, does not take inflation into account. Either way, it’s quite a bet; and after last year’s ‘John Carter’ (which only grossed $73 million with a budget of $250 million), you would think Disney would take less of a risk. What happened here? Can we point our finger at the genre itself? Did people have issues with Johnny Depp playing Tonto? Is it because the story it’s based on failed to resonate with viewers under the age of 70? Was the poster a big advertising fail? Did the score of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes push viewers away?
That’s too bad. Critically, I’m in a small minority (nearly one in four). I don’t care – I’m going to defend ‘The Lone Ranger’ because I think it is much better than its current reputation suggests. This is a colossally-sized picture with a hero who is as dorky here as the Winklevoss Brothers he portrayed in ‘The Social Network’. Yep, Armie Hammer plays ‘The Lone Ranger’ – not a name recognized by many moviegoers just yet but he has a bright film career ahead of him. As mentioned earlier, Johnny Depp plays Tonto, a Comanche Native American – a foolish-looking fellow stumbling around with face paint with a dead crow on his head. He probably purchased it from the blind kid in ‘Dumb & Dumber’.
As far as plot is concerned, all you need to know is that these two become an unlikely and even squabbling team as they try to track down a villain; this quest eventually has them running into characters played by Helene Bonham Carter, Barry Pepper, Tom Wilkinson, and William Fichtner.
‘The Lone Ranger’ didn’t find an audience today and I doubt this review is going to change that. But, I am glad that my review will be archived. Like the Coen Brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’, Spike Lee’s ‘25th Hour’, and Steven Spielberg’s ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’, this is a picture that many will reassess a number of years down the road, and file under “Initially Misunderstood”. If I’m wrong about this, then fine, I’ll be the guy who gave a Yes vote to ‘The Lone Ranger’ in a time when few others did.
The movie is equal parts Western and amusement park ride. The Western part of the movie evoked fond memories of Serge Leoni’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ both in terms of its beautiful picturesque setting and for its “every man for himself” viewpoint. And while some may argue that this is the vantage point from which many Westerns are seen, there’s something oddly amusing about it being applied to a Disney production. The amusement park ride piece of the movie reminded me of the ‘Indiana Jones’ films; the climax of ‘Temple of Doom’ and ‘The Lone Ranger’ are very similar – runaway trains on opposing tracks. These are classic pictures I’m referring to – there is an old school feel to this movie. With its eccentric framing devices, director Gore Verbinski at least gives some thought as to what goes in the frame and what stays out; and when the camera moves and why. Even the slow-paced scenes are visually striking thanks to some detailed image compositions (and a terrific booming score by Hans Zimmer). A subtle example of this can be seen in Helen Bonham Carter’s brothel – as she lifts her one leg up (which is used as a gun a la ‘Grindhouse’), you may notice a portrait of her as a young lady in the background.
Armie Hammer is a charming performer – ladies, you may not like the fact that he wears a mask throughout most of the movie as it covers his handsome face. But, the show stealer is Johnny Depp – his comedic timing is perfect here; it’s a nearly stone-faced silent performance that pays tribute to Buster Keaton. Not that the kids this film is aimed for will know who Buster Keaton is.
There is more going in ‘The Lone Ranger’ than it may appear on the surface. We first meet Tonto at a carnival display circa 1933 – he is believed to be a wax figure of the noble savage but turns out to be a very aged Tonto. He proceeds to tell a young boy his tale and takes us back to 1869. Tonto doesn’t want to boy to eat up the official story of How the West was Won; in this scene, the boy is taught not to instinctively trust what he is told just because it is written. The Lone Ranger is a good guy. But his work is in the service of dishonest people (though he doesn’t know it at first). When he does realize this, he becomes an accidental outlaw – the equivalent of a Robin Hood.
What also distinguishes ‘The Lone Ranger’ from other summer blockbusters is that it isn’t wall-to-wall noise. Verbinski gives the characters some breathing room; it’s perfectly fine for characters to have a conversation in between some very noisy action sequences. And while I appreciate this aspect, I do think it leads to the film’s weakness – an overlong running time of 149 minutes. The picture loses some steam in the midsection; characters seem to pop in and out, certain scenes end abruptly without transitioning over to the next one smoothly. But, this has always been Verbinki’s weakness (all three ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ films suffered from bloated runtimes).
I realized I’ve failed to answer the questions I’ve posed at the start of this review. William Goldman once said “When it comes to Hollywood, no one knows anything.” True enough but about a month ago, Steven Spielberg predicted that there would be an implosion – in which half a dozen (or more) blockbusters would flop. I don’t know what he based this conclusion on (yet) but he is right. This is a topic that may have to serve as its own blog post. But, I’m glad Disney took a risk with ‘The Lone Ranger’ (even if they aren’t). To me, this is a special movie – a dazzling summer spectacle; spectacular and wise; comprised of familiar pieces, yet collectively its own contemporary thing. Only time will tell if this will gain status as a cult classic – I suspect it will. QED.