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The Lone Ranger

What do you mean “we,” white man?

The Lone Ranger

After sitting through Gore Verbinski’s long and lumbering new The Lone Ranger, I have a few questions. Did the leaders of the Comanche Indian nation get to see even a rough cut of the movie before they recently gave its star, Johnny Depp, an honorary Comanche membership in recognition of his service to their people? What were they thinking of? Did this award involve leveraging his celebrity for some commercial project, like a casino?

Because it does seem particularly unfair that after centuries of betrayal and persecution visited upon Native Americans, the Comanches should honor someone who’s just completed another entry in the annals of white exploitation. The movie is hardly comparable to the killing of Chief Sitting Bull; it’s mostly just silly and too often tedious. But still, are honors in order? The jokey movie’s rejiggering of the old radio and TV program’s masked man and Tonto, his Indian yes man isn’t much of a blow to Indian dignity, but it’s also not the tribute to it that Depp has been peddling to the media for months. His new, comically revamped Tonto is supposed to be the intellectual and spiritual senior in his partnership with the impractically high-minded Ranger. (It’s the same thing Seth Rogan did two years ago in elevating the role of sidekick Kato in his revamp of The Green Hornet, which like The Lone Ranger was created for radio by Buffalonian Fran Striker). But this really isn’t much more than another of Depp’s eccentrically mannered performances. His epicene Willy Wonka reminded many of Michael Jackson, although he insisted it was inspired by fabulous fashionista Anna Wintour. Caribbean pirate Jack Sparrow derived from a woozy Keith Richards, and you’re on your own with regard to Depp’s Scots-accented Highland fling dancing Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland.

Depp doesn’t seem interested in real performances anymore; he does extended turns, repetitious performance of bits of business. His Tonto is of a piece with this tendency. The reveal is how uninventive—even by his own established standard—he is this time. Depp gets the punchlines in his exchanges with Armie Hammer’s cluelessly righteous Ranger, but Hammer’s work—no more than serviceable—is better than Depp’s. The straight man is funnier than the irony-dripping Indian wise guy.

Depp has been rather pompously claiming that this Tonto was intended to “give some hope to the kids on the reservations,” but they’re likely to be indifferent to his self-indulgent performance. Just making the Ranger a well-meaning but blundering fool doesn’t do anything to redress Hollywood’s crimes against Indians, because Depp has played Tonto for laughs too. And his terse, deep-throated delivery comes across as a mixture of Jay Silverheels’ embarrassing TV Tonto and Canadian-born movie star of yore Walter Pidgeon. The movie itself is pretty typical of the Verbinski-producer Jerry Bruckheimer partnership, a big slam-bang product.

The plot is a meandering shaggy-dog mashup of loosely assembled parts. Essentially it’s a story of a dastardly post-Civil War, continent-spanning scheme of an evil, power hungry railroad executive (Tom Wilkinson, trying to look serious) and a plot to steal silver from Indian land. The movie resurrects the foundational plot about the wounded Ranger’s rescue by the faithful Tonto and the beginning of his masked campaign to right wrongs. Except now, Tonto finds himself saddled with an overeducated Dudley Do-Right. (He quotes from Locke’s Two Treatises on Government.) And amidst all the smirky, subversively meant comedy, there’s some out-of-synch bloody sadism perpetrated by a suitably depraved William Fichter as Wilkinson’s even more evil henchman. The whole is a cartoonishly violent lampoon, full of mostly low-charge jokes. Along the way, there are quick allusions to Hollywood’s history, including Buster Keaton’s silent comedies, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific, and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

If you can sit through two hours of this stuff a payoff of sorts does arrive: an intricately engineered, computer-assisted finale involving out-of-control trains, explosives and calculatedly ridiculous stunt work. And yes, they throw in Rossini’s opera overture.

It may be hard to accept, but there are probably a fair number of people who will happily shell out cash to see this comedic behemoth. It’s blockbuster season, and Johnny Depp is back. But they may come out of the theatre feeling a little less than really satisfied.

Watch the trailer for The Lone Ranger

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