So The Lone Ranger (2013) sucked and everybody knows it, but where did it go wrong? What was wrong with this throwback to spirited western serials? The good news: it’s kind of sort of better than Wild Wild West (1999).
Problem Number One: Pirates of the Caribbean.
This movie is essentially Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Disney trying to make a fantasy cowboy movie that looks and sounds and feels like the The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Why is this bad?
Westerns are not exactly pirate movies. True, outlaws and greed for lost treasure can be crucial elements, but they’re not really the same. While the weird overuse of magic in the Pirates movies is mostly gone, it still relies heavily on physics-defying suspenseless mayhem. The Pirates movies had a lot of problems and most of those problems are not fixed here.
Problem Number two: True Grit, Django Unchained, and Rango.
1.) Three far superior and very popular western movies have already done it all better. True Grit (2010) was a great straight western. It had a simple story (catch the bad guy who killed the little girl’s dad) and it had great characters that were larger than life, but still very relateable. Add some smart and cynical Coen Brothers sensibilities and you got a great movie.
2.) Tarantino already cornered the market on stylized western cartoon violence (but with much more gore). Django Unchained (2012) already answered the call for a bold retooling of classic motifs and managed to be much smarter, more socially significant, and wantonly cathartic. It presented truly sick and evil villains and punished them in satisfying ways. Again, the cast was fantastic.
Django Unchained is about racism and slavery and the vengeful splatter-violence is a righteous re-writing of history and integral to the story. The Lone Ranger is a fun cowboy movie that tacks on the genocide bit to transparently avoid being labeled another white-washed fun cowboy movie that forgets the tragedy of First Nations. Hidalgo did a better job of talking about the injustices done to the Native Americans in just a few short flashbacks. And that movie takes place in Arabia!
3.) True Grit and Django Unchained managed to be sharper and grittier, with minimal to possibly no use of distractingly bloated special effects and CGI. Gore Verbinski’s own Rango (2011) was a totally CG movie, but it looked unlike any other CG family movie. It was smarter, faster, funnier, and the action was actually exciting and thrilling to watch. It even took a lot of chances with how much meta-narrative surrealism a mainstream movie audience could handle.
The classic but grittier western, the hyper stylized western, and the family-friendly western are all fresh in our minds and they’re all great movies. Then comes The Lone Ranger trying to be all three.
Problem number three: John Carter and Mad Max.
1.) Disney already made a big budget flop with John Carter (2012) but didn’t learn anything from it. While I personally feel like John Carter was a far better film, it suffered from stretches of boring bits, an uninteresting and unrelateable protagonist, and unyielding plot convolutions that keep on mounting with little justification and not enough payoff.
2.) Mad Max (1979) is the story of a good and morally conflicted policeman in a dystopic Australia who is beaten down by personal tragedy (the death of his partner, wife, and son) and the relentlessness of the forces of evil (renegade biker gangs) to become the ultimate vigilante. He will be swift, vengeful justice in a world full of corruption and injustice.
The Lone Ranger is the story of a naive and incompetent district attorney in the wild west who, despite personal tragedy (the grisly murder and heart-consumption of his beloved brother, the kidnapping and possible rape of the woman he loves, and witness to genocide), keeps fighting against justice and actively helps the forces of evil to continue (because of his blind dogmatic faith in due process) until he reluctantly decides to indirectly kill some of the bad guys responsible.
See the difference?
Problem number four: Tone, bad guys, and overstuffed crusts.
1.) This movie truly is tone death. You don’t put fart jokes in Schindler’s List and you don’t put wacky slapstick and cartoon action-adventure next to sick depictions of cannibalism, actual historical genocide, and shameful real-life atrocities. There is a time to shed tears and there is a time to cheer and they do not occur at the same time. The constant tonal shifts make for an uncomfortably awkward cinematic experience where the thrills feel hollow and the horrors feel too flippantly handled.
3.) The bad guys are boring. There’s a greedy railroad man who kills a tribe of Native Americans to hide silver until he can one day build a railroad back to the silver to become even more rich (bizarre plan). Then there’s a murderous outlaw who eats human flesh for some reason. It’s never really explained and it’s never really convincing or understandable. It just feels gross and inappropriate (especially for a Disney movie). There’s also a cavalry man who might have been a good guy had he not got mixed up with the wrong people. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the far better Mask of Zorro (1998).
3.) The story is needlessly complex, all over the map, and the action—while occasionally almost fun—is too ridiculous and crammed full of overblown CGI that nothing ever feels grounded enough to be cared about or real enough to be exciting. It’s a flat, joyless experience that insists by simply playing the Lone Ranger theme song at the end, we might be fooled into thinking we are having fun.
Problem number five: The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
1.) I’ll say it. I like Johnny Depp for the most part. He’s even enjoyable in this movie. Maybe the only one who’s actually having any fun. His character doesn’t always work because the writing can’t seem to decide if they want him to be wise, vengeful, or out of his mind. And that he looks like a cartoon character when he’s an old man is really not a good thing. Is his portrayal offensive to Native Americans? I don’t know. Watch Dead Man (1995) after this to cleanse the palate, I guess.
2.) Armie Hammer is a boring Lone Ranger. Again, I blame the writing and not his performance. Even Tom Wilkinson and Barry Pepper can’t even make their awful characters work. He’s supposed to be in love with his dead brother’s wife, but it’s awkward, uninteresting, and obvious it’s only in the movie because the movie doesn’t really have any female characters and needs a romance—no matter how hackneyed and insipid.
Verdict: Disney’s The Lone Ranger is an exhausting, tone-deaf, mostly boring mess that tries to be a western Pirates of the Caribbean. The writing is sloppy and most of the characters are thin and uninteresting. There’s about 10% of what could have been a really fun and exciting cowboy action movie tucked in the cracks.
And I take it back. Wild Wild West at least knows its an asinine cartoon movie with no brain. It might actually be slightly better. At least it’s shorter, has Salma Hayek, and a giant robot spider.
Ultimately I just want to watch the Korean film, The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) again. Now that was a fun action cowboy movie.
Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on July 18, 2013.