Few films may have been so ill-advised from the get-go as producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski's bloated, mismatched take on old-fashioned Western hero The Lone Ranger. Hounded by budget discussions that threatened to cancel production, received by dismal reviews and lack of interest from audiences, the painful box-office under-performance of what had been meant to be a new long-running franchise for Disney, Mr. Bruckheimer, Mr. Verbinski and star Johnny Depp in the wake of the Pirates of the Caribbean series became white noise obscuring the real issues of the actual film object.

     Though pretty faithful to the character's origin story as laid out in the 1930s radio serial and the later television episodes (the Lone Ranger is the only survivor of a group of Texas Rangers killed in a dastardly ambush, returning to bring justice to the Wild West with the help of a mysterious Indian sidekick), the truth is The Lone Ranger is simply not a very good film. Essentially, Messrs. Verbinski and Bruckheimer have cloned the approach that stood them in good stead with the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (The Curse of the Black Pearl) and then diluted gradually with the follow-ups: a more or less straight-forward, spectacular take on a classic adventure sprinkled with post-modern jokes. The problem with The Lone Ranger is there are too many jokes rubbing up with a more serious, historical side, crucially creating a disconnect of tone that eventually dooms the project.

     There is one nice post-modern touch in the framing device bookending the central plot: an aging Indian in a fun fair sideshow in turn-of-the-20th-century San Francisco tells the true story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy. But is it really a true tale, or merely a tall one? The native is in fact the Ranger's trusty sidekick Tonto, a character that the ensuing feature-length flashback will suggest plays fast and loose with truth, played by Johnny Depp as a close cousin of both Captain Jack Sparrow and his recent Tim Burton odd heroes such as Dark Shadows' Barnabas Collins or Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter. It's an eccentric, quirky performance for an odd-man-out character that remains constantly outside the boundaries of society. But while Mr. Depp's performance was central to the charm of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, here it drives the film into an "odd-couple" sitcom dynamic with Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger, openly played for laughs, that jars seriously with the underlying themes of the Western side of the film.

     In fact, if you were to eject these interludes, you would be left with an unmemorable but decent Western programmer where the Lone Ranger must avenge the death of his brother (James Badge Dale, making the most of a small role) at the hands of sadistic gunman Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and corrupt railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). This side of the film takes in a large number of Western standard plots and situations, but the lingering gravitas of the subplots involving the railroad and the massacre of Native Americans is mishandled and sabotaged by the broad humour of Tonto's oddness. In swaying between one and other, Mr. Verbinski essentially does a disservice to both, preventing him from finding a consistent tone for his film and undercutting Mr. Hammer's clean-cut, Brendan Fraser-like charm with the predictably quirky Mr. Depp.

     There's also a sense that the director may have been aiming to recapture the endearing, intriguing eccentricity of his 2011 animation Rango, another offbeat take on the western where Mr. Depp voiced a wannabe-hero chameleon. But what works as animated surrealism doesn't necessarily pass muster in live-action, and even though Disney's millions may have bought the best Hollywood can come up with technically, The Lone Ranger comes off as an aimless film trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one in particular, searching for a groove or a path it never truly finds. The film's eventual success or failure is completely secondary to it being a long-winded slog through a landscape Mr. Verbinski can never find his position on.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Hans Zimmer
Designers: Jess Gonchor, Mark McCreery
Costumes: Penny Rose
Editors: Craig Wood, James Haygood
Visual effects: Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Mr. Verbinski  (Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Blind Wink Productions, Infinitum Nihil)
USA, 2013, 149 minutes

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Visual Effects; Make-Up)

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), July 30th 2013


I like your observation that the film has "an odd-couple sitcom dynamic." I wrote a short essay on The Lone Ranger called "Laughing at Racial Stereotypes." If you would like to read it, here is the link:

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