Beneath Depp’s "Lone Ranger" brownface lies one witty performance

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 10, 2013

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Johnny Depp (left) and Armie Hammer in "The Lone Ranger."

Released amid a perfect storm of production delays, budgetary nightmares and celebrity schadenfreude, Gore Verbinski’s oddball Western is already the kind of box-office disaster that becomes a punchline for late-night talk-show monologues. Too bad, because this is one fascinating film. The weirdest summer blockbuster to come down the pike in eons, The Lone Ranger is a bitterly cynical, Sergio Leone-styled bloodbath full of fairy-tale flourishes and slapstick interludes out of a silent comedy. I have no idea who this movie was made for, but I’m glad that I saw it.

We begin in 1933, where Johnny Depp’s Tonto is slathered in Little Big Man old-age makeup. A statue come to life in an Old West museum exhibit, he spots a little kid dressed up as the title character and starts spinning a semi-coherent, fanciful yarn about what really went down between him and Kemo Sabe. Right away, Verbinski is positioning the picture as an alternative myth, a tall tale corrective to “printing the legend.”

The Lone Ranger himself (played by Armie Hammer, doing a passable Judge Reinhold impression) is a blowhard and a bit of a dolt, stubbornly insisting on the rule of law on a frontier where corruption is a given and murder is a fact of life. A nefarious railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson) has hired a band of scruffy marauders to fake Comanche attacks on settlers, making it look like the tribe violated a treaty so he can take their land. It’s manifest destiny in action, complete with the U.S. cavalry mowing down hundreds of innocent Native Americans in a chilling, mid-movie set-piece.

Depp caught a lot of flack as a white American daring to play Tonto, but look beyond all that, and you’ll find one of his wittier performances. Doing his best Buster Keaton deadpan while wearing Ace Frehley face-paint and a dead bird on his head, Tonto’s the half-mad survivor of a childhood massacre, craftily manipulating this “stupid white man” to aid his quest for revenge.

Much like Verbinski’s Pirates pictures, there are too many characters, too many tangents, and the movie is at least half an hour too long. But The Lone Ranger’s massively overscaled production and bizarre tonal shifts exert a peculiar pull. The climactic action sequence, aping Keaton’s The General with runaway trains on parallel tracks, is one for the ages. This is a strange, subversive picture.

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