The last time anyone thought it wise to make a movie version of The Lone Ranger was 1981. The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a spectacular flop, and its star, one Klinton Spilsbury, was never heard of again. The character must have seemed dated even 32 years ago, given that the original television Ranger hung up his spurs back in 1957.
As a wink to their hero’s antiquity, the makers of this supremely competent, completely forgettable summer blockbuster – which opens in the US this week, and later in the summer in Britain – have substituted the show’s original “Who was that masked man?” catchphrase with the more hip-sounding, “What’s with the mask?” Behind that mask they have cast Armie Hammer, who looks and sounds like movie stars did when The Lone Ranger was still a weekly serial on the wireless.
In this re-telling of the Ranger’s origins tale, Hammer is John Reid, a hapless big city lawyer returning to his Texas hometown, circa 1869, to deliver justice – not from the barrel of a gun, but from the pages of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. His values are soon challenged when his Ranger brother deputises him to help hunt an escaped outlaw, only for Reid’s brother to die in an ambush.
Reid miraculously survives, and is nursed back to health by a loopy Comanche who insists he wear a mask while exacting vengeance. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is the unreliable narrator of Reid’s story, which is framed by scenes of the elderly Indian recounting his experiences 64 years later (making him well over 100, by my calculations).
Depp’s performance is supposedly an attempt to reclaim Tonto from Native American stereotype. The actor was even adopted by the Comanche Nation during filming. But it’s hard to discern exactly what stereotype he’s tackling with this oddball incarnation which has all the eccentricity of Captain Jack Sparrow, but only half the wit. Much of Depp’s gnomic performance is, in any case, hidden beneath a thick layer of crumbling face-paint.
Director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, employs the Old West to good effect, with gorgeous widescreen vistas that owe everything to Sergio Leone and John Ford – which is lucky, seeing as Verbinski has nothing remotely resembling a style of his own. And like every film in the Pirates franchise, The Lone Ranger is a marathon: it takes a full hour for Reid to don his mask, and then there’s another 80 unremarkable minutes to go.
For a Western pastiche, The Lone Ranger also features a marked lack of showdowns. Perhaps because the production invested in six miles of real train tracks and two genuine steam engines, every major action sequence instead takes place on a moving train. What’s fun first time becomes steadily more wearying.
Still, at least the eminently likeable Hammer won’t go the way of Klinton Spilsbury. He already has his next blockbuster project lined up, and it’s way more up-to-date than the Ranger: a film version of The Man From UNCLE, which was on TV as recently as 1968.