Unlike many blockbuster entertainments in its league, The Lone Ranger adapts a brand, but doesn’t feel beset by the branding—no livestock-related pun intended. True, there’s at least one major wink-wink reference to the old serial when the title character hollers, “Heigh-ho Silver, away!” near the end of the film. For the most part, however, what few recognizable artifacts have been carried over from the source material are practically an afterthought in this large-scale action epic, a monument to the spaghetti western that manages to balance surreal imagery and humor with far more grave concerns, such as the wholesale massacre of Native Americans, and the brute, unscrupulous arm of capitalism as we shaped our westward expansion.
At its center is the serial’s erstwhile sidekick, Tonto, played by Johnny Depp in heavy makeup. As much as his casting may be a stunt, and one that too closely resembles his lucrative franchise work for the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Depp is actually quite remarkable, giving a balanced, detailed performance of absurdity and lucidity, worthy of the same acclaim earned by his initial appearance as Jack Sparrow. First encountered in flash-forward, the elderly Tonto recounts his adventures to an awestruck boy at a fair; it’s the Princess Bride framing device, designed to revive the capacity for awe in a young know-it-all. Previously a cipher, the film’s Tonto is an unreliable narrator, knocked loopy by long-buried trauma: a pointed comment on our species’ need to combat suffering with imagination and humor.
As heavily as he depends on the western genre’s past triumphs to fuel The Lone Ranger’s broad, colorful imagery, Gore Verbinski is an entertainer first and foremost, and leans on the likes of Leone, Buster Keaton, and D.W. Griffith only hard enough to launch his own, lovingly elaborate set pieces. The dovetailed histories of film and the 19th-century western expansion provides plenty of grist for Verbinski’s mill, but he’s an able enough builder to erect something resembling a grand design of his own. If the movie remains deeply imperfect, it’s only because the ingenuity of its moment-by-moment, sequence-by-sequence construction far outpaces the uncertainty of its lumpy script; its as if each of its many reputed rounds of rewrites and doctorings had only caused the general outline of the narrative to recede into a cloud of uncertainty, whereas individual parts were brought crystal clarity.
If your cinephile heart beats just a little faster during the movie, it’s not just the Keaton-inspired train set pieces, or the Leone-styled, expansive yet melancholy landscapes, to name just two gods in Gore Verbinski’s shrine. The tingle also indicates the presence of 35mm grain; most of the movie was shot on the real stuff, with only night scenes and other miscellany captured by the Arri Alexa. Disney’s Blu-ray production makes any format switches all but undetectable—no small feat given Verbinski’s habit for cutting quickly across dozens of elaborately composed action and tableau frames. The disc’s 7.1 DTS track is rich and well-managed, with no too-quiet/too-loud problems that can often keep your finger glued to the volume button with films like this.
Besides bloopers and deleted scenes, there are three making-of featurettes, none of particular consequence. If you’re crushing on Armie, however, one of them focuses on how much he enjoyed traveling out west and riding around on his motorbike.
Gore Verbinski’s real purdy (and genuinely entertaining) big-budget western might have been snuck out on video under cover of darkness, but Disney gave it a square deal with an impeccable transfer and a rich DTS sound mix.