The great movie westerns are about honor, dignity, the majesty of the landscape. But they’re also about beautiful men, charismatic, sometimes dangerous-looking demigods like Robert Ryan, James Stewart, Franco Nero, Randolph Scott, and, of course, John Wayne. The Lone Ranger has Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, the former a long-legged Adonis whose polite deportment puts him in the sweet spot between corn-fed and aristocratic, the latter a dazzling rascal with cheekbones that rival Gene Tierney’s. There’s something else The Lone Ranger has going for it, too: Instead of using CGI to create a believably authentic Old West setting, it was shot in the actual West. The locations include Monument Valley, the backdrop for 1,001 beloved westerns, a rugged red-and-gray vista that should be considered a visual clichŽe but instead looks comfortingly familiar — like home, but with rocks.
How much do you think The Lone Ranger‘s director, Gore Verbinski, appreciates any of this God-given beauty? Judging by the amount of crap he packs around it — dozens of superfluous plot points, action sequences so cluttered they obscure whatever genius may lurk within, heaps of heavy-duty symbolism that ultimately mean nothing, and juvenile gags that appear to have been written by 10-year-olds rather than for them — not much. The Lone Ranger has it all, but what you end up with is not much. It’s an extravagantly squandered opportunity.
You’d think, or at least hope, that a movie based on a ’30s radio show — and, later, a hugely popular TV series — would preserve some sense of lightness, some proof that it isn’t taking itself too seriously. But even though The Lone Ranger, in the manner of Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, overflows with spoofiness (Helena Bonham Carter as a madam with a loaded-for-bear ivory leg), its determination to wow is the grim kind. The movie is also overanxious not to offend: Verbinski uses a framing device to assert, repeatedly, that his movie is actually sympathetic to Native Americans and not just taking advantage of stereotypes. He clearly doesn’t trust his audience to get his point of view; worse yet, he has to keep showing us how much he doesn’t trust us.
So, between reminders of all the atrocities committed by white men, we’re supposed to laugh and have fun. That’s an uneasy fit, and Verbinski can’t pull it off. Besides all that, the plot is extremely simple in its overcomplexity: Before Hammer’s Lone Ranger becomes the Lone Ranger, he’s a to-the-letter lawman named John Reid who believes in bringing men to justice by trying them in court. His brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), on the other hand, is a Texas Ranger who knows that sometimes you just have to use a gun. Meanwhile, a captured lawbreaker with criminally bad teeth (played by William Fichtner) escapes. Also, a seemingly benevolent railroad tycoon played by Tom Wilkinson might not be as benevolent as we think, because he’s (a) a railroad tycoon and (b) played by Tom Wilkinson.
Did I mention that John has long been in love with his brother’s wife (Ruth Wilson)? And that he eventually joins forces with a Comanche named Tonto? That would be Depp, in white clay makeup streaked with tears of black to signify the Great Sadness he carries within him. Once John finally, reluctantly, dons that black mask and becomes the Lone Ranger, he and Tonto perform assorted feats of derring-do: In one of the best, the Lone Ranger’s silvery-white horse — so famous we don’t even need to mention his name — leaps atop a burning house. It’s one of the few moments in The Lone Ranger that has any real grandeur. There’s also a massive, elaborate finale involving a train, which at least gives Depp the chance to again channel Buster Keaton, as he did in Benny & Joon.
But even though Depp might have given The Lone Ranger some soul, he’s completely lost in it. The picture doesn’t challenge him; in fact, it barely needs him — it’s so top-heavy with ostentatious yet weirdly unaffecting action sequences that he’s rendered superfluous. Similarly, Hammer might have given The Lone Ranger some sex appeal, but Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli waste him, too: He’s dashing in that skimpy leather mask and absurd white hat, but there’s so much swirling around him that his face barely matters.
It doesn’t help that Hammer is saddled with the dudliest of the movie’s dud dialogue, spouting a lot of nonsense about how a civilized society doesn’t need a masked man. Of course it does! At least in movies based on comic books and old TV serials. Hammer, a real stretch of a guy, does look great on that horse, as does his stunt double — in fact, anytime Silver is onscreen, the movie springs to life. That horse — actually, of course, played by several horses — is the one figure in The Lone Ranger who’s in touch with the natural landscape around him. He’s the one beautiful guy Verbinski doesn’t let down.