Monday, 12 August 2013

The Lone Ranger (2013) Review - *Mild Spoilers*

Is it possible to ever avoid racism (or its insidious cousin, positive discrimination) in a big budget, Hollywood studio film? This is not the overriding theme of The Lone Ranger, nor this review, but it is a question that we can't help but contemplate in the moments immediately after watching the film.

A less universally controversial topic - though more pertinent to a film blog - is this; is a critics opinion that important? In other words, was it the critical reaction to the Lone Ranger that sank it at the box office, or was it just not very good? Was it too expensive for what it was?
The Lone Ranger first rode in from the Texan wilderness in the early thirties as a radio serial, to compete with The Shadow, Buck Rogers and others. He was a Texas Ranger, he wore a mask to fight institutional corruption, and from episode 11 he had an 'Indian' sidekick (ostensibly so he had someone to talk to). He was an ace shot, a good brawler and a decidedly honest figure. He joined Superman and Batman as larger than life, pulp heroes emblazoned on American (and later our) culture. The William Tell Overture became synonymous with his adventures, like the Liberty Bell to Monty Python or Ride of the Valkyries to Apocalypse Now.
There followed several comics, novels, movies and - perhaps most famously - a t.v. series which gave fans a weekly cliffhanging adventure in THE medium of the 20th century.
80 years, and almost $250,000,000 later, Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski give us an updated take on the familiar legend.
Which takes me back to my second question - is it really only good enough to have taken back half of its production budget?
Obviously, a film's profitability has little to do with its quality (*ahTRANSFORMERSem*) but here it seems negative critical response is being blamed.
We begin in 1933 (the year of LR's creation) at the circus where an aged Tonto relates the tale of the Lone Ranger's origin to a young boy, a little like The Princess Bride meets A Man Named Horse.
Flashing back to the Wild West (Texas, looking suspiciously like western movie-Mecca Monument Valley, Utah), we meet train barons, outlaws, injuns, townsfolk and a young lawyer named John Reid. After the villain is busted from jail by his posse, John's square-jawed, two-fisted older brother, Texas ranger Dan Reid deputises little bro to help him find the outlaw, and the lawmen (7 of them) are unceremoniously gunned down. Little John survives, with the help of Johnny Depp's Tonto, who mentors the city-softened bookworm into the justice-meting, white horse-riding, silver bullet-shooting hero.


Suffice to say, this isn't a 90 minute adventure, whipping from one set piece to the next... and that is where the roblem lies. 

We get John's backstory - love of life marries brother, brother dies, quandary.
We get Tonto's backstory - prospectors trick him into revealing silver mine, slaughter family, guilt leads to revenge quest.
We even get more than enough characterisation on the villains!
It becomes so bogged down in myth-making that for huge swathes it seems to forget that it's supposed to be a pulp adventure. When it does start with horse chases and train-top fights, it's very entertaining and none of the performances are bad - it's just too long.

Armie Hammer is a good actor, a handsome leading man, and he gives good Clark and good Kal-El as both sides of the heroic personae. While he doesn't 'zing' like - say - Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man or Fassbender as Magneto, he is better than solid and I'm looking forward to following his career.
Tom Wilkinson is predictably excellent as the train baron puppet master and Ruth Wilson is sympathetic as Token Woman #1

William Fitchner is odd - he's a super actor and very convincing as the Black Hat, but I was constantly distracted by... something. Maybe it's the memory of his lovely blind scientist in Contact, in which case it's my fault, or maybe he just has no business having all that dirt on his face, but something was out.
HBC was less zany than usual, reminding the audience that a fabulous actress lies beneath the STD she's obviously caught from her husband (Thank God it wasn't HIM directing this!) although she and her leg are entirely superfluous.
Which brings us to the headline stealing Mr. Depp's turn as sidekick/actual main character Tonto of the Commanche (a change because Tonto's original tribe wasn't from Texas). Imagine if Keith Richards was born a Native American and instead of drugs and booze had gotten into paganism and spiritualism. This is the Jack Sparrow we would have gotten.
He is wise (though the script isn't), sarcastic, always in control and utterly overshadows John Reid as the hero. It reads a revisionistic history where Tonto is the brains and Reid is the face of the Lone Ranger, because the evil white man wouldn't accept an Indian hero (to be fair, yeah - that happened, BUT... to be continued)

Which brings me back to my first question. The stereotypical Tonto speaks in broken English, and supports LR. In the t.v. series, they started to redress the balance by having Tonto speak properly, contributing to the heroism and while he is still the sidekick, his Indian-ness neither relegates him to 'noble savage' nor does white guilt promote him to Spiritual √úbermensch.
In this film, that's what they do - positive discrimination turns Tonto into a semi-Jedi warrior priest who has no flaws, and knows everything. Despite a really interesting section where it is implied guilt over his youthful mistake has driven him insane, he ends up being a blend of Han Solo and Obi-Wan, and this detracts from LR (Luke Skywalker in this analogy) which does damage the film.
Still on my first original question - produced by a white man, written by white men (the guys who wrote Pirates of the Caribbean and EVERYTHING ELSE EVER), directed by an American of (recent) European descent, the star is a white man playing a Commanche (though he claims he 'may have Indian ancestry')... If its so keen to promote the indigenous peoples, why are there none involved in the production? Why doesn't he play LR and have a Native American play Tonto? It's awfully hypocritical and distracts from the plot.
Let me stop for a second and back up. Do I dislike this film? Does it deserve to fail?
No. It doesn't. It's a lot of fun - not all the time, but enough to justify the ticket price. The setpieces tend to get too big, too complex, too CGI, but they're exciting and they're spectacular. Gore Verbinski KNOWS action, in a way that many modern film makers don't (Michael Bay? George Lucas? Even modern Spielberg!) and the final train bit is great. Of course, that could be because THAT music kicks in...
This film is better than most blockbusters. Certainly most modern blockbusters. It is worth your time and your money, and while it is not the next Pirates of the Caribbean (despite the same creative team) it MAY BE the next John Carter - an under-appreciated, solid piece of entertainment that DOES deserve more than an early death.

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