There’s always been something vaguely insulting about the very title The Lone Ranger. It’s applied, after all, to the least lonely of heroes, the one with the most patient and devoted sidekick ever.
Alas, it’s an awkward time for sidekicks. Or, rather, it’s an awkward time for pop heroes with nonwhite sidekicks. Two superhero movies of recent years, the misbegotten Green Hornet and the otherwise enjoyable Iron Man 2, have featured ugly fistfights breaking out between the hero and the sidekick—the Asian Kato in the case of the Hornet, the black Rhodey in the case of Iron Man.
It’s not hard to guess at a subtext for these tiffs—an overflow of race-based resentment at losing top dog status on one side, and at playing second fiddle on the other.
Now comes a new, big-budget screen treatment of arguably the greatest sidekick since Sancho Panza: Tonto, Indian pal of the mysterious masked title character in The Lone Ranger. The pair originated as radio heroes in the thirties, concocted by the same Detroit-based team that later came up with The Green Hornet (supposedly the Ranger’s grand-nephew). Tonto unabashedly gets top billing in the new film, because he’s played by Johnny Depp, and he’s the narrator and, really, the central character.
Depp’s idea is to make Tonto a slightly crazy put-on artist, self-consciously playing the stoic, monoslyllabic, article-challenged Indian for the whites he encounters. It’s in the long tradition of the racial clown who parodies the bigotries against him.
Given the wisdom of casting an Anglo in the in the role in the first place, this was probably the best approach open to Depp, and he has some lovely, funny moments, but on the whole the characterization doesn’t come into focus. The performance feels tentative, unsure; it isn’t among his best.
As the Masked Man himself, Armie Hammer doesn’t fare much better. In order to make him the butt of Tonto’s jokes, the part has been written as callow and foolishly idealistic, which makes it a bummer to play. Still, Hammer’s warmth and appeal survive the movie. There are other fine actors in the cast, including Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, Stephen Root and William Fitchner as a ghoulish Butch Cavendish, but the only one to rise above the general chaos is Helena Bonham Carter, unflappable as ever as a madam whose artificial leg is decorated with scrimshaw.
The chaos comes courtesy of the director, Gore Verbinski, who has a gift for wild, grand-scale slapstick. He stages some here, including a pretty enjoyable chase finale. But, as with his Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, he flings too many diverse ingredients into the stew, and the results are incoherent.
The movie makes reference to sources ranging from The Searchers to The Wild Bunch to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the spaghetti westerns to, in the frame story, Little Big Man and The Princess Bride, all blown up into cartoony shtick. This eclecticism needn’t be a fault, could indeed be a virtue, but Verbinski also tries for somber scenes invoking the actual genocidal horror of the Old West. Something about shoving this stuff up alongside comedy broad enough—and dumb enough—for some old Bob Hope farce feels deeply unsavory.
In short, this Lone Ranger is a mess—a fascinating, occasionally brilliant, but ultimately miserably unsatisfying mess. At one point Silver the horse—an unusually beautiful and expressive animal, by the way—drops a pile onto the desert and, sure enough, we get to see the unconscious Lone Ranger dragged through this horse crap. That pretty much sums up the movie.