The Lone Ranger isn't memorable by any stretch — but given the state of our 'action moovies', it's not a total write-off either
I hate the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I hate them because they’re overstuffed, overlong, chaotic, loud. I hate them because they’re emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the summer blockbuster, whose aim, these days, is to keep throwing things at us and wear us down till we slump in our chairs, without the energy to even complain. Most of all, I hate them because they took an actor called Johnny Depp and transformed him into a shtick figure.
Back in 2003, when the first Pirates movie was released, Depp’s biggest hit was Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sleepy Hollow, and even that was no sell-out job but a (marginal) work of vision. What a remarkable run of small, quirky, human-scale movies Depp had those days — Edward Scissorhands, Benny and Joon, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Don Juan de Marco, Ed Wood... And then Pirates happened, and we’ve had to live with Dark Shadows and The Tourist. Money, truly, is the root of all evil.
It must be said in Depp’s defense that he couldn’t have anticipated how big the Pirates series would turn out to be, and when he appeared in the first one, it seemed just as risky a gig as any of his other films, filled with oddball makeup, weirder mannerisms. But since then, especially in his roles for Burton (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), this obsession with makeup and mannerisms has become unbearable — and these eccentricities have rubbed off on his “normal” roles too.
Even in Public Enemies, the sole highlight of Depp’s post-Pirates career, he played a criminal like a showboating Bollywood hero. I walked into The Lone Ranger expecting the worst. I’d seen his look — that dead crow on top of his head, that chalk-white makeup cracked like desert earth, those streaks of hammy black tears. And I’d heard the worst. The reviews have been terrible, the box office worse.
The film is essentially Pirates on land. It’s Jack Sparrow wears a Crow. But it’s mildly more watchable than those movies because of two great action sequences, both involving runaway trains, that bookend the narrative. The first one has a terrific sight gag. A lawman thinks he has the villains cornered — and then, the door slides open behind him to reveal more villains on horseback. There’s another great bit where Depp falls forward from the edge of a compartment, goes under the train and uncouples a jammed coupling link.
Yet another great bit involves a villain who’s swung around from atop the train, and he crashes in through one window of a compartment and crashes out through the window on the other side. It’s giddy slapstick. And in the second sequence, at the end, a man on horseback is on a roof, and then he jumps on a train below, and then does things we can scarcely believe are happening. Had the movie consisted of just these two sequences, it would have been a swashbuckling classic.
Unfortunately, it has other things on its mind, and the long, long section between these two bouts of action is filled with the oddest of choices. The action sequences on the train are filled with cartoon violence. People get hurt, they die, and we laugh. But elsewhere in this story reaching back to the Old West (or just Once Upon a Time in the West) as the railways are making an appearance, Native Indians are massacred. The stakes are ridiculously real, as real as in The Searchers, with a man who's in love with his sister-in-law roaming around John Ford vistas in search of his brother’s killer.
And then, suddenly, we’re in a movie that’s attempting to be a mythopoetic legend, the Western equivalent of a birth-of-a-superhero saga. And then again, who knows how much of this is true, how much tongue-in-cheek subversion?
The Lone Ranger is possibly the only summer blockbuster-wannabe that has submitted itself to the whims of an unreliable narrator. What a curious choice for a film that’s supposed to become a thumping success in every corner of the world. It’s like a Superman story that’s revealed to be Clark Kent’s dream.
And yet, the action sequences almost make the movie worthwhile — and throughout I kept wondering why our stunt stretches are so lazy in comparison, so unimaginative, so over-dependent on punches and flying henchmen. The easy answer is that we don’t have the money that Hollywood has, but I’m not talking about the graphics-heavy shots.
There’s the bit where a man, chased by a mob, slides down the banister of a flight of stairs and hops on to his waiting horse, and another where an errant bullet ricochets off several points before snapping the support of a beam of wood, which lands splat on a couple of bad guys. (More cartoon violence.) The meticulous staging, the use of carefully picked locales, the imaginative choreography — they make it look like art. Even the villains are coloured fancifully, with one of them fond of women’s clothing. Hollywood may make as much crap as we do, but their crap is far more watchable than ours.