Arts

A Familiar Wild West, But The Guy In The Mask? Who's He?

NPR | July 9, 2013 9:38 a.m.

Contributed By:

Bob Mondello

There’s never been anything very lone about the Lone Ranger. He’s always been accompanied by Tonto, his Native American sidekick, Silver his snow-white steed, and the William Tell Overture.

And in the big-screen version out this Wednesday from Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski, he’s also trailed by a wagon train’s worth of classic-movie references: Monument Valley settings straight out of John Ford Westerns, steam-locomotive stunts cribbed from Buster Keaton’s The General, a one-legged madam who’d seem Alice In Wonderland-ish even if she weren’t being played by Helena Bonham Carter. There are even antagonist-buddy routines for the lawman Ranger and the outlaw Indian that might have been lifted straight out of Laurel and Hardy.

Armie Hammer plays the titular Ranger — well, Ranger-to-be when the film gets underway — as a noble do-gooder fresh out of law school, while Johnny Depp’s Tonto is a face-painting “noble savage” (that’s the movie’s phrase) who’s forever feeding the dead crow he wears on his head.

They’ll bond, but not until the movie introduces Silver — a spirit horse who arrives to lift the ranger’s soul literally from the grave. Think of this film’s early going as an origin-story version of The Lone Ranger, in which we even get a backstory for the mask. That, and some major shifts in tone.

Audiences expecting a Pirates of the Panhandle from Verbinski — who paired with Depp on that swashbuckling franchise as well as on the ingeniously eccentric animated Western Rango — are in for some serious dry stretches.

The director’s been saying his Lone Ranger is a sort of Don Quixote as seen through the eyes of a demented Sancho Panza, and as with that tale of a knight tilting at windmills, there’s social commentary everywhere you look in this adventure. The script fancies itself a critique of capitalism, a manifesto on manifest destiny, and a saga about silver mines and the slaughter of Native Americans.

All very admirable, if not a great fit for scenes that involve Depp communing with snaggle-toothed cannibal bunny-rabbits and taking a runaway train ride or six.

I mentioned Buster Keaton’s train movie The General earlier, but when Keaton did stunts — playing pick-up sticks with railway ties to clear the track in front of a moving locomotive, say — he actually did the stunts. The ties had weight.

Here, the director laid six miles of track in New Mexico and built two locomotives — built the locomotives, I said, reportedly for authenticity’s sake — so he could do things with real trains.

But he’s digitally enhanced and implausibly staged those sequences so thoroughly that he might as well have done the whole thing as a cartoon. There’s a couple of hundred million dollars’ worth of technical wizardry up there on screen, and nothing is at stake.

Except, maybe, for some future amusement-park ride, and the sequels, and toys and hats and masks. And piles and piles of silver, if enough people lay down their hard-earned dollars to hear Hammer’s hearty “Hi-yo.”

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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