Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Lone Ranger's real problem is that it's embarrassed by its hero

I'm some eight months late to the party on this, but I finally watched THE LONE RANGER last weekend and came away with some thoughts.  This was one I skipped last summer because - to put it bluntly - the trailers failed to sell me on the movie and there were plenty of other films I was more interested in seeing in my free time.  The fact that a lot of critics went after this one didn't help, nor did the fact that the only insanely positive reviews I saw seemed to be coming from a place of wanting to be contrarian.

Still, I was curious enough to see the movie on DVD, if only to see if it really was as bad as people claimed.  And here I agree that the rhetoric surrounding the film probably got a little bit out of hand.  There were definitely worse movies last year.  You could argue this is a major disappointment coming from the team behind Pirates of the Caribbean, but it's nowhere near the disaster that Dead Man's Chest was.  It's got a lot of well-staged action and a cut of this film that just the set-pieces would probably be damn entertaining.  When he's asked to do broad, over-the-top and well-choreographed cheeky action, director Gore Verbinski delivers.

But unfortunately that only accounts for about half of the film - and the other stuff that's left... is not good.  If the rest of the film was merely neutral, I probably could have let the action carry me away and assess that in a big picture sense, the movie was great fun.

The problem is that the stuff that doesn't work is often offensive in how bad it is.  Too often it's the kind of misfire that's hard to ignore.  It's made worse by the fact the final moments of the film shoves those flaws in our faces anew, leaving us unable to wrap up the viewing experience without being reminded "Oh yeah! That was awful!"

As I watched the film I kept seeing the sequences I recalled being targeted in some negative reviews last year.  I'll deal with a few of those below, but one moment in particular completely surprised me and it's the moment where I decided the filmmakers were embarrassed by their own hero.  But I'll get to that momentarily.

John Reid, the man who becomes The Lone Ranger, isn't introduced as the sort of macho-heroic figure you might expect.  His first scene is actually kind of charming in how it uses that. While riding on a train, he picks up a child's stuffed animal and attempts to toss it back to them. In a well-executed bit of comic timing, the toy is sucked out an open window, prompting the child to cry as Reid is chagrined.  The mother invites Reid to pray with them, and he says, "No thank you ma'am. This is my Bible," and indicates his law book.

Yes, this incarnation of the Lone Ranger begins as a bookish sort who would look completely out of place in a gunfight.  Moments later, it's played for a laugh when he takes on a bad guy and says "I must warn you - I boxed in law school."  It's not quite as extreme as watching Niles Crane awkwardly resort to fisticuffs, but that's definitely the sort of laugh that the movie is going for.

On it's own, this isn't a problem.  I kind of liked how this gave Reid a lot of room to grow.  If we accept the Lone Ranger as a superhero of sorts, then it's fair game to play up the nerdy alter ego.  THe problem is that the script can't resist undercutting the Ranger at every turn throughout the film.  Scenes seemingly designed to show off how formidable the Ranger has become are instantly undone by a cheap joke.  Some of these come in the form of physical comedy and others arrive as sarcastic quips from Tonto.

As I kid, I know I rented The Legend of the Lone Ranger more than once.  I now recall very little about it, beyond the fact that it got a number of the touchstones right.  Those who remember The Lone Ranger at all probably recall bits like the use of the William Tell Overture, the line "Who was that masked man?," the fact he uses silver bullets and that he's prone to rearing up on his horse and saying "Hi-yo Silver away!"  In fact, that last one is probably the iconic hero shot the character is remembered for.

We get that moment in the film.  After a really good third act and a massive set piece involving a train, things mostly seem to be on track.  The William Tell Overture kicks in at the start of the sequence and for the rest of the sequence everything seems to play almost perfectly.  The action is audacious and fun, the heroes are making all the right moves, and for the most part, the humor seems to enhance the scenes rather than take the piss out of them.

The adventure over, the Lone Ranger rears up on Silver and gives his familiar battle cry as he prepares to ride off into the sunset.  And if the film ended there, it at least would go out on a high point and a rush of endorphines.

But it doesn't end. Instead we cut to Tonto, whose practically rolling his eyes.  He says, "Don't ever do that again."  Get it? Because the Lone Ranger's are so cheesy and embarasssingly square that you HAVE to have someone call them out.  Seriously, Verbinski and his team are so embarrassed by their square-jawed hero that they can't even let that ONE moment play out without any irony.  And it's emblematic of how the film treats the character throughout.

Tonto's main purpose in the film is to provide a vehicle for Verbinski and his team to keep reminding us that they're above the material.  He's their mouthpiece for puncturing the straight-arrow nature of the Ranger.  There's nothing wrong with a good-natured quip now and then, but the more they do it, the more it feels like we're encouraged to see the Lone Ranger as a fop. In The Lone Ranger, Tonto's quips are all about undercutting any competence and presence on the part of our hero.  He's Tonto's punching bag.  It's sort of like watching a Sherlock Holmes movie where Watson is played by Jonah Hill and he's constantly calling the famed detective "a nerd who can't get laid."

Picture this: in the next James Bond film, Daniel Craig orders a dry martini, shaken not stirred.  He nods down the bar to the impossibly beautiful woman whom we know would be putty in the hands of Sean Connery.  The woman smiles, eyes aglow, and says...

"Come see me when you're ready for a MAN's drink, Sally!"


Or what if The Dark Knight Rises had a sequence where Batman confronts Catwoman and she goes, "What's with that stupid growly voice?  Is that supposed to scare me?"


Just by way of comparison, I think most people are of the opinion that 1997's Batman & Robin is a silly, campy film, right?  Most Batman fans are embarrassed at how cartoony the tone and the dialogue are and it was so poorly received that it necessitated a total reboot of the franchise in a completely different tone.

As bad as Batman & Robin is, there's really no point where director Joel Schumacher tries to convince you he's above the material.  We're talking about a movie where Batman pulls out a Bat-Credit Card and NO ONE blinks at how silly it is.  If Verbinski had directed that moment, Robin would have had some quips along the lines of "Who the hell issues a Bat-credit card?  What's your credit limit? Do they do debit as well?  Or is it de-BAT?"

Schumacher's Batman might be a square-jawed boy scout along the lines of the Adam West interpretation, but Schumacher still directs the film like Batman is our hero. As much as he's overshadowed by the villains, at no point are we directed to believe the guy in the batsuit is a silly klutz.

Batman & Robin commits to its reality more firmly than The Lone Ranger. Digest that one for a few.

THE LONE RANGER has a host of other tonal issues too, including a really misguided framing device that has a young boy encountering Tonto at a fair in 1933.  The elderly Tonto is there as part of a display called  "The Noble Savage" and the whole story is then told as sort of a tall-tale from Tonto.  It's a misfire in terms of tone and also in how it sets up the world.  If you were to show me this two-hour-and-thirty-minute cut of the film and give me free reign to edit it, all of this material would be the first to go.

The one thing it does accomplish is that it opens the whole story up to the possibility that we're seeing it through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.  Given how bananas Tonto is in places, that would at least give the film's strange tonal shifts some context.  I don't really think this was intended, though.  And if it was deliberate, the film doesn't commit hard enough to being a tale told by an Indian with a few marbles missing.

Of course, the other problem with this framing device is that it means that after the aforementioned "Don't ever do that again" scene, we have to again return to this 1933 travesty to tie up everything, which means Tonto gets the last word AND the ending credits are spent on watching him take a solumn walk off into the desert alone.

THE LONE RANGER concludes not with a heroic gallop into the sunset, but a downer ending that makes you pity Tonto's sad fate and loneliness. The film's biggest failings are what Verbinski uses as punctuation.  You almost feel like a fool for enjoying the final act as much as you did.

Someone give this film the Phantom Edit treatment.  It won't fix everything, but it WILL mitigate the damage.

To return to my main point, the most important lesson one can get from it is to remember that the audience usually needs to believe in your hero in order for the film to work.  If you don't think your guy is capable of saving the day, why should we?


  1. You're right; it's nowhere near as bad as everyone claimed. It just couldn't decide what it wanted to be.
    As for B&R... I'm convinced they put something in the water on that production. That it's at least committed to its particular brand of madness is possibly the only commendable thing about it. Hey, it took 17 years but you found something!

  2. Dear BSR,
    Are you an Aussie/Kiwi/Brit/Irish by any chance? I've never heard an American use 'take the piss out of...' - kudos to you if you've picked that up, mate!

    1. Nope, I'm a total Yankee. I just like the phrase.

  3. BIG "Lone Ranger" fan as a kid. But even as a seven year-old, I was disappointed with the '81 fillum. Loved the toys but.

    Trailers for this movie really put me off. Very Tonto/Johnny Depp-centric in our neck of the woods. And, of course, cartoonish as hell.

    One day I'll get around to watching TLR. And when I do I'm pretty sure I won't find it as bad as everyone says it is. Actually, I'm 99.9% certain of that.

    Hell, I still don't get the hate for "Pearl Harbor"...

  4. I also cringed at Johnny Depp as Tonto, and could not accept his POV narration for one reason - if it is a tall tale, why have himself as an outcast? Why admit to the fact that he went insane? If he thinks the Ranger has a supernatural quality to him, why treat the character with such disdain? Not to mention that Tonto's story takes up *the whole day*.

    I personally think that every character was over the top so much to the point that when it came down to Reid, the actor, Armie Hammer, had little choice put to play him as a straight man.

    You are spot on w/ hero mythology. Batman ends with the BatSignal in the Burton and Shumacher films. In the Nolan films They end with reverence for the character. Larger than life.

    As I read the post, I thought about The Green Hornet film from a few years ago. It almost did the same thing as The Long ...oops...I mean Lone Ranger did (and there are connections between the two characters) and I wonder if that was one reason for the failure of Hornet as well.

    What do you think?

  5. Reading this made me think of Cabin in the Woods.

    I'm a big horror fan and I really wanted to like that movie. And a lot of it worked for me. It put an imaginative and fresh spin on some of the genre's most established tropes and delivered the elements one expects from this type of film in an innovative way.

    But watching CITW (I've seen it a couple times now) I still get this nagging feeling that, as a horror fan, I'm being made fun of. Like Whedon and co. very much felt like they were "above the material" from start to finish.

    I haven't seen this yet, but based on this appraisal, I suspect fans of the Lone Ranger must feel similarly.

  6. My main problem with this film (i havent seen it btw) was that the side-kick was promoted as the lead. It seems like the producers of this film had so little faith in Armie Hammer's ability to hold the film that they resorted to pushing him to the back. So basically this became a movie about a hero who is the side-kick in his own story.

    Why would we want to see a movie about a hero that doesn't have the ability to be the hero? If the producers of this film didn't have faith in him then why should we?

    1. Yeah, I can't argue with that, though there's a tradition going as far back as the first SUPERMAN that the bigger name actors are used to sell the picture. (People forget that Christopher Reeve was billed third, after Brando and Hackman.) The problem here is that the script lets Depp overshadow Hammer in exactly the way you suspected.

  7. Great analysis. I also just saw this movie and agree with everything you just said. The movie isn't the worst thing ever but it is a major cluster fuck. Another problem I had was the villains, there were too many. It should have just focused on Butch Cavendish and maybe the railroad baron as the power behind the throne. What are your thoughts on the bad guys?

    1. I found most of the bad guys unremarkable. The script did a poor job of hiding its "secret" bad guy and I really felt Cavendish was kind of a thin character. Felt like they piled on the nastiness because there wasn't much to the guy otherwise.


    BSR- Bet you never saw this review.

    Here is one Native American's humorous and learned review of the film, coming to the same conclusions, but in a very different and respectable way.


    1. Really interesting review with a lot of good points made there.