Nashville on Stage:
The Lone Ranger

(l-r) Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger Pic credit:

(l-r) Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger Pic credit:

By now everyone knows that the recent cinematic version of The Lone Ranger (a classic staple of ‘30s and ‘40s radio and ‘50s television) basically bombed at the box office last weekend—even though it came in second after Despicable Me 2. The Lone Ranger took in $48.7 million, which sounds like a huge amount of money (and it is)—but the film cost upwards of $225 million to make. Since summer blockbusters usually have their biggest take on opening weekend, then quickly sink, it doesn’t look too promising for the ‘masked man’ and his sidekick Tonto.

Also the quirky, campy, crackpot western has gotten mostly negative reviews—although several prominent reviewers loved it. As for me, this ‘not-so-prominent’ reviewer, liked it too. I grew up in the ‘50s, and I fondly remember watching the TV version of The Lone Ranger in the afternoons after I got home from school. Moviemaker Gore Verbinski’s version of The Lone Ranger is much more quirky, humor driven, violent and campy than the black and white TV episodes I used to watch. But all the elements of the all-American hero that audiences found so inspiring for nearly 30 years are still there.

Verbinski turned the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise into solid gold with four films starring Johnny Depp (who plays Tonto here) including $3.72 million in worldwide box office sales. Although opening weekend was disappointing, lightning could strike again for Verbinski. Audiences for The Lone Ranger tended to be older than for your typical blockbuster, and older groups often don’t rush to see a film on opening weekend—and also frequently go back to see it again.

The story starts out as a flashback told by a ‘Little Big Man’-looking elderly Tonto to a white boy at an Old West museum in 1933 San Francisco. Old Tonto is a ‘noble savage’ who wants to stop that boy from swallowing the official version of ‘how the West was won’ and also from trusting authority of any kind, ever. All the old Western cliché’s are flipped. A U.S. Army action on behalf of a corporation makes the audience pray for Indians to ride to the rescue. The film is so attuned to Tonto’s distress that when a brass band plays ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’ it’s like bad guy music.

The Lone Ranger is the story of how John Reid came to become the Lone Ranger. It’s the classic struggle between good and evil, centered on a healthy dose of Native American mysticism. The violence is pretty stark at times, but the humor keeps the mood light. Johnny Depp is quite often strangely hilarious.

By the end, the Ranger has become something close to an American Robin Hood—an outlaw who understands the difference between brute force and true moral authority.

The film stars Armie Hammer (Social Network) as John Reid, an idealistic young lawyer who goes to Texas to visit his brother, a Texas Ranger (James Badge Dale). After a cannibalistic villain murders his brother, the square-jawed Hammer as John Reid has had his ideals dashed. For much of the film we see John morph into the incognito do-gooder many of us fondly remember. He’s got the white horse, the fancy silver bullets—and he’s got Tonto, an oddball Comanche with a dry wit and an even drier layer of paint caked to his face.

Depp claims hereditary connection to the American Indians, stating his native ancestry is why he wanted to do the role. He actually walks a fine line here with silent film style buffoonery and broken English—but in the end, his humorous and spiritually mystical Tonto emerges with dignity. Depp’s Tonto is a ‘spirit walker,’ a Comanche warrior who came back from a ‘near death experience’ with special mystical gifts. After John Reid is technically killed but ‘returns,’ Tonto recognizes this ‘gift’ in him—and their bond of friendship is sealed.

For the most part, Hammer plays straight man to Depp’s smart aleck Indian. The two stars play very well off each other, and by the time the last runaway train and exploding bridge and silver-mine shoot-’em-up is over, we have seen one of the best team-ups since Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and he Sundance Kid.

Typically, I’m not an action movie fan—but the special effects here are pretty darn cool. There are numerous, riotous chase scenes with thundering hooves and ricocheting rounds of ammo, breathtakingly scary stunts, horses racing atop a speeding train, a surreal sight gag of a white steed perched in a tree—what’s not to like?

As for villainy, take your pick: Tom Wilkinson is all sinister charm as Latham Cole, the railroad magnate with a maniacal plan; William Fichtner is Butch Cavendish, a hare lipped, silver-toothed outlaw who eats the hearts of his victims (raw); and Barry Pepper is the cavalry captain carrying out orders violating the treaties with the Comanche nation.

The Lone Ranger is an odd film in many ways, but I loved it. Yes, the film is too long—two-and-a-half hours. But I’d go see it again—like (hopefully) many other ‘over 30s’. The Lone Ranger is rated PG-13 for violence, intense action, and adult themes.