Thursday, July 11, 2013

Disney's The Lone Ranger

...A Cloud of Dust...
Depp in the Heart of Texas

The last time "The Lone Ranger" hit the big screen (1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger, directed by cinematographer William A Fraker), it hit with a resounding thud.  It's not that the story wasn't any good, or that the basic idea isn't ripe for story-telling—it's just that the movie was dull, dull, dull, even as it was trying to be more "politically correct," giving John Reid's "Indian companion," Tonto, a bit more respect and hewing a little closer to a generically Native culture.

That was then.  This is now.  John Ford made the first modern Western in Stagecoach.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah made the "post-modern" Western in the 60's.  Then, after post-modernism came death.  People stopped making Westerns entirely, with hold-outs like Eastwood and Costner and Kasdan and Harris, the tropes of the genre falling into use in, cop movies and martial arts and space fantasy films.  But the form stayed pretty much dead and buried.  Given the history of the form, and with its emphasis on the spirit world, resurrection of dead men, and its manic quality (especially as its de rigeur for the creatures these days) maybe Gore Verbinski's film of The Lone Ranger (now Disney's) is the first zombie Western.

It fits.*  One of the themes galloping through this one is that "nature is out of balance," what with the "Wild" West being invaded by iron horses, the presence of "spirit horses," villains who will eat the hearts of their victims and manically carnivorous jack-rabbits out on the plains.  Zombies, okay.  But it's a bit of a Frankenstein monster, as well, made up of parts of what has gone before.  The final credits say that it was filmed "from Moab to Monument Valley," mostly Utah, and its true, with shots in Zion, Arches National Park, and the Monuments (looking slightly different from the time John Ford filmed them—the calved spires seem to have been digitally erased—although Verbinski has taken a lot of Ford's specific angles several times in the film). 

Verbinski's The Lone Ranger on the left; Ford's The Searchers on the right

But it seems like Nature isn't the only one with the problem.  The Lone Ranger is a Western out of balance, tipping from side to side and waving its arms frantically while standing on a line between olde Westerns and the post-modern varieties, with full-stops at the Leone era** and the silent era of comedic Westerns, specifically Buster Keaton's The General (not technically a Western, but go with me here) in the film's final bursts of energy.  The movie veers from queasy nastiness to whimsy to outright comedy and slapstick, without taking a break for water.  The villains are played absolutely straight, from Tom Wilkinson's rail baron to his nasty co-hort, Butch Cavendish  (a greasily unrecognizable David Fichtner), while the heroes are bumblers with good intentions, like Armie Hammer's rube of a Ranger,*** and top-billed (above the character and movie title) Johnny Depp's bizarre take on Tonto—well, it's bizarre for Tonto, but not for Depp, as this "Indian companion" would line up well with his other pasty-faced odd-balls like Edward Scissorhands and Barnabas Collins.  And, in action, his Tonto acts more like the Sam character in Benny & Joon, there's some Chaplin, but a lot of Buster Keaton in his stone-faced, article-challenged Tonto (the make-up for which is inspired by a painting by Kirby Sattler entitled "I Am Crow," which is neither authentic or historically accurate, but it looks distinctive, which suits Depp's purposes, I suppose). 

The movie runs on two parallel tracks of revenge—the Ranger, John Reid's, and Tonto's—as the two end up joining forces to deal with the guys who ambushed the Ranger's brother and posse, and the guys who wiped out Tonto's village, for which he feels responsible.  It's a little late in the game to plead weariness of the revenge scenario—it seems like every movie hero has to have a personal grudge as a pilot light, rather than to "do what they gotta do" through some sense of altruism.  Possibly that heroic quality is passé or considered foolish in today's culture, or maybe there's no sense of audience involvement if it isn't seen why the protagonists stand up for what's right.

But, it spends most of its running time moseying through origin stories and the whittling away at the uneasy alliance between Reid and Tonto.  Then, once things get going, there's an extended chase sequence featuring the two trains involved in the driving of the golden spike uniting the nation's railways, an "Indiana Jones" type of marathon that explores everything that you can possibly do with two trains running on occasionally parallel tracks (when did they find time to lay all that extra track, one wonders?).  The sequence would make the silent comedians gape, and propelled by variations of "The William Tell Overture," provides a lot of entertainment.  It's fun for quite awhile and Verbinski constructs some Rube Goldbergian scenarios that are, once or twice, ingenious.

But, instead of coming at the nick of time, it comes a might too late.  The focus there at the end comes after a lot of wandering aimlessly through the desert, looking for something to do.  Granted, its not as dull as the 80's attempt to put the spurs to the franchise, and in parts its entertaining, if one isn't looking for native axes to grind**** or is approaching the material with an already jaundiced eye.  One wonders if it was worth doing, or whether "The Lone Ranger" should be allowed to pass into legend, a relic of the thrilling days of yesteryear.

The Lone Ranger is a Rental.

My favorite appearance of Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels as
The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Kind of reminds me of how the movie plays them.*****

* Yeah, but one can see that as a strain running through Verbinski's work, especially considering the "Pirates" movies and Rango, where folks are coming back from the dead, or at least the crossing back from whatever spirit-world seems to fit the project.

** Composer Hans Zimmer does a lot of riffing off Ennio Morricone, the most notes taken from For a Few Dollars More (with its tinkling chime contrasting with a heavy-handed forward momentum theme), but also in the comedic grace notes that follow Tonto's shenanigans with a punctuating trill that Leone used for Eastwood's "Man with No Name" in A Fistful of Dollars.

*** Hammer is introduced like Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the "duded" pilgrim who stands out far too much in the rough West, in a suit so formal he's mistaken for a a missionary.  It's one of his better performances, showing that he's at his best, comedically, despite (and maybe because of) his blandly handsome looks, in a way that's similar to Cary Elwes. 

**** Most of the talk is focused on Depp and his "white-face" portrayal of Tonto and how authentic it is (not very), which with the existing suspicions people have of the character as demeaned and inferior, has been mostly negative, because, like skin color, its very easy to see and remark upon with what one thinks of as authority.  One wonders if such a rehabilitation is possible, given the character's man-servant past, like Robinson Crusoe's "Friday," or The Green Hornet's "Kato" (although it certainly helped if Bruce Lee was in the role, bringing the character up several notches just on ability and charisma—should we mention that Brit "The Green Hornet" Reid is a descendant of The Lone Ranger?), and whether its even worth it to right the past's wrongs.  The alternative is to stay in place, and be content—although grousing—with the way things were and just leave it aside.  I think it says something that Depp thought Tonto was the more interesting character to play, as for anything Depp does very authentic?  Short answer: No.  As for the whole racial thing, I thought the best line was Depp's Tonto griping about the ranger being a "stupid white man," and the Chinese railroad workers grinning and nodding in agreement at him—he's just another them.  Now, that's some funny ethnic humor there.

**** It also is inherently racist as it paints Tonto in a bad light, obviously Natives are gluttonous. (*cough*)

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