Dandified DA John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a man of the law who turns into the masked vigilante of the title when his brother (James Badge Dale) and fellow Texas Rangers are murdered by a gang of outlaws headed by the scarred William Fichtner. But Fichtner is a mere cog in a criminal wheel in a much bigger conspiracy involving railroad tycoon Tom Wilkinson. Johnny Depp plays possibly screw-loose Indian loner Tonto, who nurses a wounded Reid back to health after the ambush of the Rangers. Ruth Wilson plays Reid’s sister-in-law, whilst Barry Pepper plays an army captain with a more questionable spine than a paraplegic (Of which I am one, so please spare me the angry emails), and Helena Bonham Carter turns up as a madam.
This 2013 film from Gore Verbinski (The “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and “Rango”) is exactly what I thought it would be from the trailers. It’s a bloated showcase for Johnny Depp to run amok in a film more interested in the sidekick than the hero, which ends up playing far too much like “Wild Wild West” for comfort (with a little “Once Upon a Time in the West” thrown in for good measure). I’m no aficionado of the character of The Lone Ranger, but this film simply won’t suffice. It should’ve been called “Tonto”. Director Verbinski and star Depp fared much better in the western genre with their terrific animated film “Rango”.
Armie Hammer is disappointing in the title role, but given the character feels repositioned as a sidekick to the more proactive Tonto, I feel a bit sorry for him (Producer-star Johnny Depp gets top billing in a film called THE LONE RANGER!). Did they have no faith in the title character? Then write it better. They’ve kind of worked this as an origin story, but even then, having the character essentially start out as the dandiest of the dandy, seems plain wrong. I’ve heard that it’s pretty faithful to the established origins of the character, but I bet he wasn’t this much of a tenderfoot early on. It feels overdone. As Tonto, Depp adds nothing (except running time that would’ve been better spent on Helena Bonham Carter and Stephen Root, who get scant screen time) and subtracts a lot. The framing device of the old-age Tonto narrating the story is awful, because the way he tells it, you can’t be sure if he’s serious or not. He plays Tonto without any respect for the character whatsoever. It’s Cap’n Jack with a different accent and a bit more deadpan. There is no reason for Tonto to be played in this self-consciously, self-indulgently quirky manner.
But this mirrors everything else about the film, as Verbinski delivers even the best things about the film with the heaviest of hands. Tom Wilkinson steals the show effortlessly, but there is absolutely no subtlety to his character from moment one. ‘Railroad baron’ is western shorthand for most evil motherfucker in town, and it’s a hoary old plot device. Wilkinson’s bloody good in it, though, and William Fichtner is also good fun in a slinky, slimy bad guy turn that is equal parts Christopher Walken and Billy Drago. But Verbinski even manages to deliver the action in heavy-handed fashion. We’re meant to feel bad about senseless slaughter. This is NOT a fun movie at all. It’s actually quite miserable and a complete miscalculation. Speaking of miserable, leading lady Ruth Wilson is absolutely awful. Thank God she’s not in the film enough to do too much damage.
Getting back to the action, the only bright spot is the finale, which is exactly what the action in the rest of the film should’ve been like: Exciting and fun. And even then, I have issues with the way Verbinski and composer Hans Zimmer (“Backdraft”, “Gladiator”, “Inception”) incorporate the infamous ‘William Tell Overture’. It suits the rhythm and excitement of the climax, but it should’ve been used throughout the film not as functionary excitement music (not to mention a throwaway gag at the beginning), but tied closely to the main character. Otherwise, this is a very fine score from Zimmer, evoking the great Ennio Morricone (“Once Upon a Time in the West”) at times. And why not?
Director Verbinski clearly loves the western genre and has made a terrific one. It’s just not this. It was “Rango”. Here he favours dark and supernatural themes that aren’t necessary, and gives star Depp far too much leeway. This should’ve been an easy story to tell, but Verbinski has cocked it up, with an assist from writers Justin Haythe (the surprisingly terrible “Revolutionary Road”), Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio (scribes of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films).
It’s not an awful film (and I loved seeing a choo-choo chugging away in the background of the preceding Disney logo), just awfully boring, bloated and focussed too much on the least interesting characters. Damn good scenery, though. Go watch “Rango” again instead, this isn’t fun at all.