From a certain perspective, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Comanche foil and sidekick, might seem like an intriguing challenge of ethnic transformation, like how Meryl Streep has tackled every dialect under the sun. But, then, Streep has never attempted to play a person of color, and, in this case, as has been previously griped about, the person of color is literally whitewashed with war paint, and visually based on a white artist’s Native American interpretation. The cash-conscious vulgarity of casting a white superstar in this role, something that even the Lone Ranger TV show avoided, is hard to get past, even if you’re comforted by Depp’s honorary Comanche adoption and supposed smidgen of Native American blood.
And yet, all of that only scratches the surface of Depp’s problematic presence in The Lone Ranger, a predictably bloated tent pole from Pirates of the Caribbean maestro Gore Verbinski. A mere shadow and parody of his former self, Depp does a lame regurgitation of his Captain Jack Sparrow tics, from the on-cue bewildered expressions to the bumbling, yet charmingly efficient, mannerisms. Every line is a one-liner, every punch is paired with a punchline, and it’s all made more puerile by the simplistic, monosyllabic lingo of a “savage.” Depp is no longer the freak, but the fool, and that should give you a sense of the kind of entertainment The Lone Ranger provides.
Beginning with a shot that immediately showcases Verbinski’s industrialist themes and filmic references, scanning over an under-construction Golden Gate Bridge and a red balloon released high above a carnival, the movie starts in 1933 San Francisco, where a young boy (Mason Cook) in a Lone Ranger getup enters a circus tent with Wild West exhibits. There, he comes across what looks like a Native American wax figure (cheekily labeled as “The noble savage in his native habitat”), who magically comes to life and begins telling the boy a story (we gather that the man’s a decrepit Tonto, with Depp in wrinkly prosthetics). From this framing device, we jump back to Colby, Texas circa 1869, where the railroad has finally come, with, according to tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), the promise of progress. Aboard a train headed toward the town is metropolitan, hopelessly square attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer), as well as prisoners like known killer Butch Cavendish (an unrecognizable William Fichtner) and the ostracized Tonto. As Butch’s cronies catch up to the train to free their hair-lipped leader, so begins one of many boisterous, off-the-rails set pieces, with justice-conscious John forced to step up and take action, and the whole thing coming to a dusty, inches-from-death halt after a few million dollars worth of CGI wreckage.
Verbinski certainly did his western-movie homework, for outside of all the rootin’-tootin’ Rube Goldbergian action scenes, the director consciously evokes John Ford with his widescreen vistas of sun-baked deserts (on-location shooting took place in Utah, Texas, and beyond), and his nod to films like The Searchers with scenes of near-helpless families under attack in the wilderness. To start, he also makes a haphazard, two-man chain gang of Tonto and John, who go on to become allies when the latter, newly deputized by his Texas-ranger brother (James Badge Dale), is killed by Butch’s gang, then inexplicably resurrected. The material caters to Verbinski’s aptitude for mystic visuals, grimy detail, and striking tactility, all of which he brought to the Pirates of the Caribbean films and the richly textured Rango. The Lone Ranger is undeniably fun in spurts (and features unexplained, offbeat elements like mad cannibal rabbits and a cross-dressing henchman), but it’s also another example of its maker’s wild propensity for indulgence, clocking in at 149 minutes and featuring its share of ostentatious flourishes, like a joke of a transition that sees a desert scene become a ripply glass of drug-spiked water.
The movie, of course, barrels toward climax upon climax, and while possibly better photographed, the crashes, bangs, and booms are no less numbing than anything else you’ve seen in this summer of garbage blockbusters. The cowboys-and-Indians nostalgia—which hits its peak when a familiar theme song blares on the soundtrack—seems pleasant from a distance, but reviving this specific type of old-school film gives Disney a free pass to make yet another white-dominated and male-dominated diversion (as a damsel in distress and a brothel-owning femme fatale, respectively, Ruth Wilson and Helena Bonham Cater are barely present). There are plenty of remarks about “stupid white men” from Depp and the actual Native Americans in the cast, but that’s just boilerplate, white-guilt pandering, and the “stupid white men” are still front and center while the “savages” are sidelined. More than anything, The Lone Ranger is a work of tremendous hypocrisy, as it villainizes industry, big business, and the pursuit of wealth, when the evidence, from casting on down, shows that all three things seem to comprise the film’s reason for being. After finding that his society is considerably lacking in justice, John opts to remain an outlaw, and if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that the film biz could use as many outlaws as possible.