Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Lone Ranger

The long-awaited reboot of The Lone Ranger has had a notoriously troubled production, delaying its release by over a year. I had nothing personally invested in this film, as I knew hardly anything about the original radio series or any other screen adaptations of the character. I did know that the team that brought us the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films were working on this project, which could have been a good or a bad thing (depending on your opinion of director Gore Verbinski's aesthetic). I was mildly anticipating this film as it was, even though I feared for the worst, given its production woes. So when critics left and right began ruthlessly panning this film, I was surprised that so many of my close friends and family actually enjoyed it. This allowed me the freedom to approach this film with a pretty open mind, and I gleaned something from it that I think may help others appreciate it more than they might have otherwise.

John Reid is a by-the-book attorney returning to his Texas home via train after receiving a job offer. Before he arrives home, however, the train is ambushed by a group of miscreants who promptly free the prisoner Butch Cavendish before setting the train on a collision course. His life is saved, in part, by another prisoner aboard the train, the Comanche outcast Tonto, who failed in his attempt to kill Butch thanks to John's intervention. With his brother Dan's assistance, John places Tonto in prison to await trial and accompanies his brother on a quest to track down the band of outlaws led by Butch. But with a traitor in their midst, the Reids' company are ambushed en route and all seven of them are killed. At the bequest of a white spirit horse, however, Tonto later learns that John has been chosen as a "spirit walker" (a man who cannot be killed in battle) to help him in his quest to destroy Butch for his crimes against the Comanche tribe.

In pure Gore Verbinski style, this film is a very peculiar beast. There is no shortage of quirkiness, either in characterization by Depp and his frequent collaborator Helena Bonham Carter, or in cringe-inducing moments of grotesque slapstick. Having followed this film's production since the screenwriting process, I remembered that Disney originally intended for this film to have more of a supernatural element (much like the Pirates of the Caribbean films) that would include some version of werewolves as a central antagonist. A lot of the framework for this idea is still present in the script with the inclusion of silver bullets and nature being "out of balance". Part of me wishes they had chosen to tell that story, but while it wasn't expertly re-written, the fix they implemented does manage to satisfactorily tie those loose threads into the narrative.

One thing the movie absolutely nailed was the cinematography and the wonderful choices for location shooting. The landscapes of Utah, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California are shot to breathtaking effect in this film and the style in which the movie is photographed makes this somewhat rote western surprisingly accessible to people like myself that prefer a more modern aesthetic. No matter how many historical inaccuracies or jarring tonal shifts this movie has, the visuals are undeniably stunning to watch.

While I doubt it's controversial to say, this is far from a perfect film. For one thing, some people are claiming (somewhat accurately, I might add) that this film is a little tough and even brutal for what we have come to expect from Disney. I've even heard some say that the PG-13 rating is being pushed with some of the content presented. While this is certainly one of the most violent Disney films I've ever seen, I don't think it's that much darker than any of the Pirates films which depict many of the same things. The difference here is the gritty, grounded universe being portrayed in this film makes the gruesome aspects more disturbing, as opposed to the fantastical world of the Pirates films that leaves room for emotional detachment.

Given all the negative reviews flooding the internet, I feel the need to defend this film a little against the somewhat unjustified hate it seems to be getting. Most of the problems other reviewers have cited are perfectly valid, but the saving grace that allows me to mostly overlook these flaws in storytelling and editing is the fact that the story is told completely by a much older Tonto (who may not be a very reliable narrator). As the film progresses, the audience comes to understand that Tonto isn't perhaps the most mentally sound character, which gives me the impression that many of the eccentricities depicted in this story are merely the bizarre recollections of a slightly delusional storyteller. It's a major mulligan, but I think looking at it from that perspective might make the film a little more enjoyable for critical moviegoers.

Despite the flaws in this film, I actually found myself really enjoying it. The action is intense throughout the film (though highly implausible), and the performances are quite good. The standout, as always, is Johnny Depp who brings a wonderfully understated humor to the part of Tonto, while layering it with a tinge of sorrow in the few emotional parts of the story. I can't say this film is tremendous, but compared with the recent Cowboys and Aliens I think this film is a lot more fun. It doesn't have a great deal of emotional weight to it, but I didn't approach this movie with that expectation. To me, that would be like disliking The King's Speech because it didn't have enough action set pieces. I enjoyed this film for what it was, and while I would have liked for a bit more coherence and character development, I still give The Lone Ranger a slightly generous three stars.

THE LONE RANGER is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material