By Melissa Agar
The Lone Ranger (Disney, 2013) – Director: Gore Verbinski. Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Barry Pepper, William Fichtner, & Mason Elston Cook. Color, 149 minutes.
Dear Johnny Depp,
First off, let me start off my saying I’m a fan and have been for a long time. I’ve appreciated the quirky resume you’ve built and the fact that you aren’t afraid to stray from the tried and true “movie star” path to create a career filled with fascinating movies. You’ve taken risks a lot of other actors would not. I get it. The thing is, Johnny, that there comes a time when this quirky outsider thing becomes a little self-indulgent and, frankly, unbearable. After sitting through the nearly three unbearable hours that is The Lone Ranger, though, I think it’s time for a little real talk and some tough love.
I get it. On paper, I’m sure The Lone Ranger sounded like a great idea. It gave you the chance to work again with Verbinski, the man responsible for making you a truly bankable movie star with Pirates of the Caribbean. Unlike your creative partnership with Tim Burton, Verbinski found a way to channel your penchant for hiding behind makeup and character voices into a more marketable flavor. (With the exception of Sleepy Hollow, your films with Burton, despite their huge cult following, did not become largely profitable until after your appearance in the first Pirates film.) The Lone Ranger would give you a fun, quirky character to play in Tonto – a wry, eccentric Commanche who partners up with John Reid (Hammer), a young lawyer who has returned to his small Texas hometown to be reunited with his Texas Ranger brother Dan (Dale). Like Captain Jack Sparrow, Tonto is not narratively designed to be the lead, but it is Tonto who gets all the good lines and memorable moments and emerges as the real star of the film, despite the title. There are some tense action sequences that probably read fabulously on paper. The final epic train chase had some real potential in the planning stages, I am sure. The back story that is developed for Tonto (the only character to get any true detail to his backstory other than “Hey, John Reid is a lawyer and has a thing for his brother’s wife”) is engaging and allowed for you to do some of that brooding loner stuff you love. I get it.
On the other hand, I have to kind of wonder if you read any of the script beyond the Tonto parts because a lot of that is a real mess. The plot is mired in moments that are truly eye rolling. We are given a hero, prim John Reid, a lawyer who worships John Locke (the political philosopher, not the Lost villain). John is bafflingly deputized as a Texas Ranger by his brother even though his brother has just spent numerous lines of dialogue talking about what a wimp his brother is and how ill-equipped he is for life in frontier Texas. John joins his brother on a mission to capture escaped murderer Butch Cavendish (Fichtner). (Seriously, what kind of Texas Ranger would subject a civilian to such a mission, especially his brother??) John wants to bring Cavendish in to follow the proper legal channels, but the mission is clearly set up as more of a posse to capture and kill the sadistic murderer. Of course, the mission is ambushed, an attack that leaves everyone dead except for John, making him the lone surviving ranger. (Thus the title). Tonto rescues John and helps mold him into a hero so that they can bring Cavendish to justice. There’s a lot of stuff in there about some silver and the railroad and treaties with the Commanches and an outlaw who seems to like cross-dressing (oh, hooray! Frontier gay jokes!) and the U.S. Calvary ... did any of that make sense to you when reading the script, Johnny, because I felt like I needed some sort of map to keep track of all the antagonists who started lining up against you guys. By the time Carter showed up as a one-legged madam hiding some powerful artillery in her prosthetics, I was kind of ready to throw my hands up in surrender.
The plot becomes merely filler while you do your thing, Johnny, and while your Tonto is entertaining, he’s no Captain Jack, capable of carrying a whole movie with his drunken, Keith Richards-esque antics. When Tonto’s not onscreen, the film drags miserably because we’re never given any other characters for who we can feel any sort of allegiance. While there’s no denying that Hammer is a shockingly good-looking young man, as an actor, he lacks the charisma to carry the film, a quality that’s kind of necessary for a titular protagonist, wouldn’t you say? Little is done to develop John Reid as a character outside of broad, clichéd brush strokes, giving Hammer little to work with outside of his winning smile. (I know Hollywood really wants Hammer to be the next big thing, but I’m beginning to understand why he’s been an “also-ran” on so many big parts in the past couple years.) The other characters equally give us little. John’s sister-in-law (and beloved) Rebecca (Wilson) and her son (Prince) are captured, so the stakes are ostensibly raised for John and Tonto, but then this capture seems utterly forgotten until it’s convenient to worry about them again. Like Hammer, Wilson and Prince lack much charisma onscreen, and Wilson has little chemistry with Hammer, so the unrequited love that seems to be hinted at here has zero fire. I swear I felt a chill when John and Rebecca share their one kiss.
Other plot holes are just completely glossed over or danced around by the unreliable narrator that is an elderly Tonto telling the story to a young boy decades after the fact. (The opportunity to hide under layers of prosthetics to play elderly Tonto must have obscured the fact that it was a ridiculous and lazy plot device that introduced more potential questions than it answered.) The plot at times jumps around frenetically, which works in a couple moments but confuses more often than not.
There are plot elements introduced but never explored sufficiently. What’s the deal, Johnny, with the silver? What sort of mystical power gives John that sort of peyote-esque psychic vision when he first encounters it? Granted, that was a moment that had my eyes rolling at an alarming rate, but it was a thread that disappeared almost as soon as John put the rock back down. What was going on in that jail cell when Tonto is locked up at the beginning? And how the heck did Tonto get out? And don’t get me started on that final train sequence – the fact that all these different people – including a child – seem to know how to run a steam engine; the fates of all the innocent people caught in the crossfire; how the heck a horse is able to jump on top of a moving train. (Yes, I know that Silver is supposedly a mystical beast, but since the film takes great pains to discredit Tonto as a mystic guide, doesn’t that discount Silver’s status, too?) That train becomes sort of a metaphor for the whole movie – a whole lot of stuff that looks pretty great (and sounds pretty great as the train speeds along to the familiar strains of “The William Tell Overture”) but still doomed to fail spectacularly.
Johnny, here’s the thing – you’re a great actor. You have made some tremendously intelligent and entertaining films over the course of your career. Your willingness to eschew vanity and not cash in on your good looks is truly admirable. Not many heartthrobs would embrace the roles you have – Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, Raoul Duke, even Captain Jack Sparrow. You even scored cool points with me for your cameo in 21 Jump Street, showing you appreciate your roots even when you’ve grown so far from them. Lately, though, you seem to be all about the makeup and eccentricity and have grown less discerning about quality of the overall product. Next time you get a script, maybe read the whole thing to make sure you’re not signing up for a train wreck. And give it a rest with the makeup. Not only will your skin thank you, but your audience might, too, because the truth of the matter is, Johnny, I’m not sure how many more of your self-indulgent cinematic journeys I can take.