THE PARALLELS to Superman are uncanny: In the 1930s, the Lone Ranger was created as a new kind of American hero—a fighter for all that's right and just in the world. He's a bit of a square, a bit of an anachronism, and after lapsing into irrelevance for decades, he's been rebooted for 2013. One wonders if, in the right hands, the Lone Ranger might not only recapture public imagination, but also become an emblematic hero for today's different, troubled era.
These are not the right hands. With the incredibly expensive The Lone Ranger, one imagines Disney crossing their fingers for something like Pirates of the Caribbean. They've ended up with nothing short of a fiasco. This is a lumbering, nonsensical, crazed slab of big-budget lunacy, and audiences and critics will unite in their contempt for it.
The worst part of the film is a truly appalling framing device, in which a boy wanders into a carnival tent in the 1930s. He views a stuffed buffalo and other Wild West attractions, including "The Noble Savage"—a frozen Johnny Depp in old-age makeup, a dead crow atop his head. Then Depp comes to life and reveals himself to be Tonto, the Lone Ranger's legendary sidekick, and proceeds to tell the annoying child an absolute mess of a story about the masked man's origins.
The film wants to be playful with Tonto's unreliable narrator, so we jump around chronologically as he revises details. (The result is the jumbling of a narrative that's already pretty confused to begin with.) In 1869, straitlaced John Reid (Armie Hammer) takes a train to his Texas hometown, which looks suspiciously like Utah's Monument Valley. A notorious outlaw's aboard (Butch Cavendish, played with sinister relish and some truly nauseating makeup by William Fichtner), as is Tonto, and when Cavendish escapes, Tonto and Reid find themselves in the middle of a multimillion-dollar action sequence that will make a really cool theme-park ride.
Newly deputized, Reid joins a gang of Rangers to go after Cavendish, who slaughters all of them except Reid. Then Tonto and his dead crow show up again, and the pair comes across Helena Bonham Carter as a hooker with a leg made out of ivory. There also might be werewolves? This all makes about as much sense as it sounds.
The tone of the movie veers wildly, as lighthearted swashbuckling sequences bump up against some seriously dark stuff. It's also surprisingly violent, if not exactly bloody—the body count is incredibly high, including the slaughter of not one but two entire Native American tribes. Depp's performance as Tonto, buried under Comanche warrior makeup, is as racially insensitive as you've heard, and Hammer is likeable but vanilla.
This is all a shame. Director Gore Verbinski is obviously a fan of Sergio Leone, and the further The Lone Ranger dips into the Italian director's brand of operatic surrealism, the more fascinating it becomes. And the western, as a genre, deserves to have a thoughtful renaissance. But this movie lives in big, dumb, noisy Blockbusterland; it's loud, racist, baffling, and overlong. Its plot is nearly hijacked by imagined superstitions. Its narrator is a liar, and its hero jettisons his moral compass in order to take care of business.
Hmm. Maybe The Lone Ranger is the hero America deserves after all.