Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Lone Ranger (2013)

The Lone Ranger (2013)
Directed by Gore Verbinski; Starring Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, William Fichtner

Rating: 4/5

Directly ahead of The Lone Ranger as it made its way across the pond was a cloud of overwhelming negativity from American critics to sour the film’s UK opening. Stars Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp have defended the film against this tirade, arguing that many of these reviews were written months before the film was released, and focused on condemning the large budget length. This side of the Atlantic, critical reception has been elevated to “mixed”. Bracing ourselves for the worst, the revelation is that The Lone Ranger is actually a cracking film, that does not deserve its fate as the latest high profile flop.

This is the first attempt to resurrect the adventure serial hero for the big screen since The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), which was also released against a backdrop of negative publicity. The film makers alienated fans by suing the Ranger’s 50s actor Clayton Moore, who frequently made public appearances in costume, for continuing to wear the iconic mask.

Yes, the $250 million dollar budget screams extravagance, and the two-and-a-half-hour run time seems bloated. This is typical of a Hollywood bubble that seems in danger of bursting, as studios continue to green light expensive sequels and reboots that absorb money and frequently fail to make a significant return. The length is not a problem; it remains interesting throughout, and the last sequence is almost a little too action packed.

Such funds might be necessary for nailing the CGI on a flying aircraft carrier, or Iron Man’s latest pair of rocket pants, but traditionally, westerns ranked among the cheapest entertainment. This was true during the Lone Ranger’s heyday of the 1950s, especially for television. The bare minimum merely required a twenty minute drive to the deserts outside Los Angeles, or if you were willing to spend a few more days on the thing, Arizona’s Monument Valley, which appears here in all its cinematic glory.

What sets The Lone Ranger apart is that it is seriously old school cinema. The Lone Ranger himself, with his white Stetson, domino mask and strict moral code, is an iconic American character, first appearing in 1930s radio serials, and more famously in the 1950s television series which spawned a couple of well received (but low budget) film adaptations starring the same cast. The latest incarnation is directed by Gore Verbinski, who knows a thing or two about working with Johnny Depp. The man who brought swashbuckling sagas back to our screens is an appropriate choice to resurrect one of the earliest Western heroes.

Trailers featured behind the scenes footage, seeking to make us aware that this film eschews total reliance on CGI, instead opting to perform many of the most impressive stunts for real. There are some particularly breathtaking sequences involving trains; the story is set against the backdrop of the transcontinental railway, the completion of which is relocated to reconstruction-era Texas. The budget goes slightly to Verbinski’s head, in the form of extravagant sets constructed from scratch deep in the Mojave Desert.

As an origin story, the film provides compelling back stories and character arcs for both the Lone Ranger and Tonto. From the character’s inception, The Lone Ranger was instilled with a strong set of principles, and this is how John Reid, the man who will become the Ranger, starts his journey: as a man of virtue but naivety, who believes in the law, and more importantly, a powerful sense of justice. This is challenged powerfully over the course of the film; Reid must carve himself a new justice as he comes to term with the faults in the system, and its ineffectuality in the lawless West. After years away in the East, building his respect for the law, he returns to his home town as the new District Attorney, on the same train that is carrying the outlaw Butch Cavendish, and an imprisoned Tonto. Cavendish escapes, and Reid is swiftly deputised by his Texas Ranger brother, setting out to aid in the recapture.

Tonto’s after Cavendish for different reasons, seeking some kind of atonement for the mistakes of his past. There’s silver in them there hills (another Lone Ranger necessity), and the location of a rich vein was unwittingly revealed to Cavendish by a young Tonto. This folly cost the boy dearly: Cavendish murdered Tonto’s entire village to keep the location a secret. Unable to come to terms with this act of brutality, Tonto convinced himself that the outlaw is a wendigo, a Native American folk demon associated with cannibalism, which Cavendish is indeed inclined to indulge in.

Much like other films that revive a beloved franchise (2004’s Starsky & Hutch or the Antonio Banderas Zorro films spring to mind), The Lone Ranger spends its time with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and is packed full of tip-of-the-hat homage. This nostalgia trip rubs off the generation that grew up with the classic incarnations, who are waiting for a cry of “Hi-yo Silver, away!” or a rousing rendition of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, both of which are delivered, and wisely held back until the finale. For the uninitiated, the film provides a welcome introduction to some great characters, and the osmosis of popular culture ensures the atmosphere feels familiar nonetheless.

The choice of the relatively unknown Hammer to play the Lone Ranger preserves some of the mystery of the character that might have been difficult with a familiar Hollywood face. Hammer handles the role with the good natured comic charm of Brendan Fraser in The Mummy (1999). As this is a Lone Ranger who is still learning the ropes of heroism, the casting allows Tonto to step into the limelight and spend more time driving the story. The framing device is that of an elderly Tonto circa 1933, the date of the first radio serial, who regales a young fan with his tall tales of old west adventure.

Johnny Depp gives a typically quirky performance as Tonto. There’s plainly something of a certain pirate captain coming through in the character’s mannerisms, but Tonto’s spirituality and raison d’ĂȘtre are different enough from Jack Sparrow's love of mammon and the bottle to keep the interpretation original.

Interestingly, Depp preserves the broken English that characterised the classic incarnation of Tonto, an attribute that Tonto’s 50s actor Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk, always found objectionable. There has been limited controversy surrounding the portrayal of a Native American by a non native actor, although Depp has claimed distant Cherokee ancestry and was adopted as an honorary son of the Comanche, Tonto’s nation.

The focus is on the developing relationship between the two leads, with long sequences following them through the desert. As a result, some of the secondary characters have limited screen time, and are underdeveloped, despite the long run time. But the cast is rounded out nicely. An unrecognisable William Fichtner is suitably despicable as the cannibalistic Butch Cavendish, his harelip revealing a gold tooth. Helena Bonham Carter shows up, all too briefly, as a brothel madam who gives the heroes their next clue. There’s even a Custer-esque Cavalry Officer (Barry Pepper) who attempts his own Little Big Horn against the Comanche.

The Lone Ranger has truly been a highlight of the summer film calendar. It manages to be both a traditional western that captures the spirit of old Hollywood, and revisionist in its interpretation of the characters. Don’t listen to the critics on this one.

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