Gore Verbinski brings The Lone Ranger to the silver screen in a way the world has never seen before, with a darker tone, a mega budget, and a whole lot of Tonto. And while this re-imagining of the classic action-western franchise doesn’t re-invent the genre in the same way that Verbinski breathed new life into swashbucklers with Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s still a beautiful, well-crafted film that’s worth seeing, despite the bloated runtime and cliché-ridden script.
Critics worldwide have panned The Lone Ranger for its weak plot and overdose of Tonto (Johnny Depp). I completely understand a lot of the criticism, yet I still find myself very attracted to the film all the same; in terms of photography, score, visual effects, and art direction, The Lone Ranger is one of the best films of 2013. It invigorates the stale western genre by infusing modern style, all the while not sacrificing the props, costumes, and real set pieces that make the genre great.
When you look at The Lone Ranger you can see money on the screen. This has been a source of contention for many critics, but to me that money on the screen seems like it was spent on genuine old trains, authentic costumes, real location shoots, and some truly awesome special effects. Early on in the film there is an expensive train crash scene, where spotting out-of-place CGI is nearly impossible to do. The blend of props and computer effects are often seamless in this film, which is a good thing. It’s always been my contention that the best special effects are those you don’t notice are there.
The story is far less ambitious than the visuals. It’s largely a predictable tale of revenge, where The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto set out to bring justice to Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who is responsible for killing Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), the Lone Ranger’s brother. Throw in a side story about an overly-ambitious railroad tycoon (Tom Wilkinson) and a former female love interest (Ruth Wilson), and you have a script that basically writes itself.
The only interesting twist is that Tonto is the narrator of the story; meaning we get his perspective on how events unfolded, and his testimony is certainly less than reliable. Tonto sees himself as a mastermind, convincing John Reid (that’s the Lone Ranger’s real name) that he’s a “spirit walker” whose purpose is to bring balance to nature by killing Cavendish, whom Tonto believes to be a wendigo.
The script has moments of brilliance, but I completely admit it’s the film’s weakest point; there simply isn’t enough story here to justify the two-and-a-half hour runtime. To make matters worse, the story gradually becomes far too Depp heavy. Tonto’s quirky antics slowly began to grate on me as they became less and less complimentary of the film’s tone, sometimes bordering on completely unbearable.
The film seems obsessed with infusing Pirates of the Caribbean fun where it doesn’t belong. The spirit of Jack Sparrow simply doesn’t need to reside in Tonto. When The Lone Ranger is allowed to stand on its own two feet, it proves it’s strong enough to move out of Pirates of the Caribbean’s shadow, if Disney would only let it.
On a technical level, The Lone Ranger has few rivals. Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli deserve a lot of praise for making what really is an astonishingly gorgeous movie. When the film opens at a carnival in 1933 San Francisco, it was the score by Hans Zimmer that hooked me in immediately, filling me with a sense of beauty. But when the visuals come into focus, it’s the elegant imagery that drew me into the movie and made it hard to let go.
The opening isn’t an isolated example. There are several strong scenes that feature a near perfect blend of art and music, culminating in an experience that’s easy to lose yourself in. One moment that features a battle between the native Comanche tribe and a corrupt United States military provides genuine emotion; watching the Comanche fall dead moved me deeply, and the superb direction, score, and well-lit battle shots are largely to thank for that. Sadly, the darker moments are sometimes cross-cut with shots of Tonto’s wackiness. But most of the action is so brilliant in terms of choreography and special effects that it was hard for me not to enjoy them immensely, even if Tonto felt out of place.
The Lone Ranger is a film for folks like me who are suckers for model sets, props, location shoots, and old-fashioned filmmaking beauty. It doesn’t abuse CGI, instead using computer effects in cooperation with traditional art direction to create an aesthetically stunning film. When the photography, direction and score are all hitting the right notes, they combine to create a film where talent – not just money – dominates the action on screen.