09 July 2013

HO-HUM SILVER

Three things: first is that, despite what the aggregate of the reviews tell you, The Lone Ranger is entirely unlikely to give you cancer. It's not good, but it's not appreciably worse than plenty of big-budget tentpoles. Two is that $250 million dollars is impossible to justify for any motion picture, because while it's really obvious where director Gore Verbinski spent all that money - on a massive reconstruction of trains in the Western wilds to serve as the setting for an unfathomably expansive final setpiece that is, bar none, the best thing the movie has going for it - it's simply not any more involving or exciting than movies that cost half as much. Third is that the culture of making tentpole popcorn movies longer than they need to be really, badly needs to stop, because The Lone Ranger, at 149 minutes, tells exactly the kind of story (lawman avenges his dead brother, fights the evil railroad baron) that Westerns told ten or fifteen times a year back in the '40s and '50s, and they were able to tell totally engrossing, genuinely exciting films that felt complete and completely satisfying at just 80 or 85 minutes apiece. When we've hit the point that movies can be a full fucking hour shorter without losing anything of importance, and would be a hell of a lot more fun as a result - somewhere in all that footage, there's a 90 minute Lone Ranger that's my favorite popcorn movie of 2013 so far - then we have to acknowledge that something is deeply, even irreparably broken in the culture.

Sign of Trouble #1: the film's totally unnecessary framing narrative, which takes place a cheesy fair in 1933 (the year that the Lone Ranger as a character debuted on the radio), where a young boy wearing a homemade black domino mask (Mason Elston Cook) pokes his nose into a Wild West exhibit that's seen better days. Here, in a display marked "THE NOBLE SAVAGE In His Natural Habitat" (the first of many tepid attempts to Say Something about the treatment of Native Americans using a character noted for being a ludicrous caricature), he finds what looks to be a model of an old Indian, but is in fact an ancient Comanche who, in between his arcane mumblings, reveals himself to be named Tonto (Johnny Depp - the old-age makeup is unusually convincing). THE Tonto, the boy is delighted to learn, and Tonto tells him the story of the long-ago day that Tonto became the traveling companion to the legendary, one-and-only Lone Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), back in 1869.

Bluntly, there's no reason at all for this framework narrative. It doesn't cast any kind of interesting perspective on the material. It doesn't add to the sense of mythic import enjoyed by the character in later days. It doesn't deepen Tonto at all (and Tonto, throughout the movie, could do with some deepening, I'll tell you what). It just... adds. There hasn't been such a spurious, but unavoidably present framework narrative, inserted for such unclear "but nobody told us not to" narrative or aesthetic motivations since, well, since John Carter, Disney's last adventure in spending a mountain of money to bring to the big screen an old-school pulp hero with not remotely the name recognition they'd been counting on, clarifying (like it needed it) that Disney needs to figure out what the hell is going on at the executive level, because Marvel movies aren't going to save the company's ass forever.

But anyway, the movie. Reid comes to Texas to visit his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), and practice law in the newly-forming civilised West, getting drafted into a posse to help take down the murderous Butch Cavendish (a nearly-unrecognisable William Fichtner, giving easily best performance in the film). The Reids and several other Texas Rangers are ambushed, with everybody but John dying, and he clinging to life only by the merest fraction of a thread, and that's where he's found by Tonto, who he'd already met during the very prison break that set Cavendish on the run. The two men join forces, reluctantly, to get revenge on Cavendish (Tonto has his own personal reasons to kill the man he believes to be a wendigo, a type of cannibal spirit that always puts me in mind of the unfairly underrated 1999 horror film Ravenous), and they eventually connect him to the company hastening to complete the Transcontinental Railroad, and particularly the smiling but menacing tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). It takes, and I can't emphasise this enough, one minute less than two and a half hours to tell this unbelievably complex story.

A lot of that comes in the form of narrative spurs that exist for no obvious reason other than their own private amusement (and whole characters, like Helena Bonham Carter's ivory-legged brothel owner, who could be cut from the film without altering its storyline at all); most of it is simply because the film plods, scenes wander without motivation or a clear design, and the character development moments are hideously slow and redundant, to the point that they don't even end up establishing character, because the actual nugget of what's going on is lost among all the padding. Eventually, the film establishes the Tonto/Reid dynamic that should have been in place by the end of the first act, and indulges itself in an action setpiece that is, in truth, as good as anything the summer has born witness to: really impressive practical effects married, uncertainly, to CGI bits and pieces where practical effects would have been dumb, some very fun choreography of two trains on more-or-less parallel tracks, the use of a winningly bombastic orchestration of Rossini's overture to Guillaume Tell worked in with Hans Zimmer's score (which errs, throughout, on the side of anonymity; one feels almost that Zimmer was deliberately restraining himself until using the character's iconic theme as a big emotional release), and the presence of two things the film has desperately lacked till then: speed, and clear direction. It's too little, too late, even if it takes up almost a fifth of the total movie; but it's there, and the movie would be quite a bit more boring without it.

Should that problem have even come to pass? Verbinski and Depp, in their three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (of which only The Curse of the Black Pearl is "good", but all three are better than this) certainly found more interesting human elements along the way - Depp's Tonto is too sedate and one-note to even qualify as a decent retread of the increasingly deflated Jack Sparrow - and one would like to think that the director of Rango would have slightly more of an insight about how to treat pulp material with a bright energy. It is the case that the flickers of horror around the edges of The Lone Ranger (Cavendish's cannibalism, assorted dark, modestly spooky corners) are a bit more alive than the sullen action and dialogue scenes, even if "flickers of horror" feels somewhat contrary to the project to begin with, but that's all the more of the director's personality that shows up, and even at its worst, the leaden POTC: At World's End had a better understanding of why it's genre was meant to be entertaining. The Lone Ranger is mostly handsome, it sounds terrific, and when it wants to be exhilarating, it knows how to be; but the story is an epic disaster of bloat and confusion, and the characters simply aren't enough fun to hang out with to make up for that.

5/10

7 comments:

Damian Oakes said...

Actually, the way you describe this movie, it sounds like Heaven's Gate would have been just as fitting a candidate for Blockbuster History as Wild Wild West.

Tim said...

The difference being, for me, that Heaven's Gate is bloated and indulgent in fascinating, artistically-driven, frequently exquisite ways, while TLR is bloated and indulgent to absolutely no end whatsoever.

Anyway, I thought about it, but I have other plans for Heaven's Gate.

David Greenwood said...

Wow, Heavens Gate and Ravenous... two of my favorite "westerns" namechecked on one page. w00t!

Glad Tim defended HG so I don't have to.

Surly Duff said...

I think I would have hated this movie more if I had not fallen asleep for part of it.

I am astonished, absolutely astonished, that you effectively gave Depp a pass on your review. Perhaps you just avoided that pitfall altogether so your review would not be overly long? Regardless, I found that his "performance" deserves more mockery that you provided. Everything about his choices for this performance, the dead crow on his head (especially during the opening when his fed the thing) to his "accent", which was so strange and awful I couldn't even place it (a mix of stereotypical "Injun" with some random italian or canadian mixed in?) to his overall lazy delivery throughout the movie. It was an absolute trainwreck. Maybe his performance was a metaphor for the actual trainwreck in the movie?

mpjedi2 said...

Hey man, Leave JOHN CARTER (OF MARS) out of this....

That movie is joyous.

sawney said...

I have literally zero interest in seeing this, but I'm posting a comment to show support for Ravenous, which may be my favorite horror-type film of the '90s.

David Greenwood said...

Finally got to see this, and I was shocked that I really enjoyed it. Given that I have hated every Verbinski / Depp collaboration to date on some instinctive gut level I shouldn't have. The only reason I went was that I'm a sucker for action movies involving trains.

Weirdly enough, I liked pretty much everything in the movie. And once again, I love a Depp performance that everyone else hates. Tonto was a very fun character to watch, as the whole time I was trying to figure out how much of his weirdness was for real, and how much was fucking with the normals. And of course, the two big action scenes were utterly top notch.

I do feel like Verbinski wanted to make a movie that wasn't The Lone Ranger, though. He clearly liked Tonto, but wanted to make a big moody western picture, not an escapist action film. That said, at least it was way more fun than Dead Man.

In the end, this seemed to me like a director too in love with everything he shoots to cut any of it. I thought all of it was good, but there was just a bit too much. Some editor needed to give The Lone Ranger a little tough love. Overall, though, I had a great time.