The Lone Ranger a confusing, masked wimp

Given his rebel instincts, it may be beside the point to observe that Johnny Depp’s latest genre exercise is neither your father’s The Lone Ranger nor your grandfather’s.

The Lone Ranger

Two stars (out of four)

Rated: PG

Given his rebel instincts, it may be beside the point to observe that Johnny Depp’s latest genre exercise is neither your father’s The Lone Ranger nor your grandfather’s.

Your dear pappy and grandpappy, I trust, would not tolerate a wimpy Lone Ranger or a mugging Tonto.

But if this isn’t the Kemosabe and sidekick from some 80 years of radio, TV and movie legend, then who are these masked (and face-painted) men? And who, exactly, was this bipolar oater made for?

That’s where we run into trouble, pardners, because I’m not sure exactly what actor/executive producer Depp is up to with his co-conspirators, director/producer Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

With this riotous reboot, they seem to be chasing modern moviegoers who prize action over storytelling and who also possess strong bladders — the 149-minute running time makes this almost enough for two movies.

But shouldn’t these Lone Ranger arrangers have decided whether they were doing send-up or serious? And shouldn’t they have called the film Tonto, since it’s really all about him?

Almost every moment with Depp as Tonto is played for laughs, beginning with the Buster Keaton/Keith Richards moves he also brought to his continuing Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

He’s added weird new tics for Tonto, already a troublesome racial caricature. These include his habit of feeding grain to the dead crow on his head and the film’s strange framing technique of having Tonto recount his exploits decades after the fact, while posing in a “Noble Savage” exhibit.

Armie Hammer’s conflicted Lone Ranger, in contrast, is like Jimmy Stewart with a lobotomy. He’s all glum and no fun.

Without the mask (which he’s reluctant to wear), he’s pacifist eastern lawyer John Reid. He abhors guns and also subscribes to the bizarre notion that the Wild West of 1869 is just itching to be civilized, which it surely ain’t. Not when there are guys running around, like the rapacious railway and empire builder Lathan Cole (Tom Wilkinson) and psychopathic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).

Thanks to the plodding pens of co-writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (more Pirates alumni) and Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), it takes a good two hours for the movie to finally live up to its title.

Reid has to be coaxed and provoked into accepting the destiny that Tonto and a supernatural white stallion named Silver (Hi-yo!) have been forcing upon him: he’s meant to not just wear the mask, but also to heroically ride to The William Tell Overture (goosed by Hans Zimmer).

This epiphany arrives just before the second and most elaborate of two action set pieces aboard and atop a speeding train, a blur of inanities that would give a physicist a migraine.

It’s a reminder that the picture comes from studio Disney, which doubtless has the plan of making a theme-park ride out of it one day. This would be a reversal of the course of Pirates of the Caribbean, which began as a Disney ride before it became a blockbuster movie franchise.

Disney’s deep pockets, and Verbinski’s eye for detail, also help make The Lone Ranger look like the real deal, from trains to terrain. It was shot in four western U.S. states, including Utah’s picturesque Monument Valley, site of many a John Ford western.

The money is all on the screen, with no sign of scrimping despite the studio-ordered trim of $45 million to the original $260-million budget. And for the film’s first hour it looks like it might have been money well spent, especially during the first train action sequence when the Ranger and Tonto are literally chained to each other.

Other aspects of The Lone Ranger aren’t like Disney at all. The film has a few dubious aspects that should make parents think twice before taking very young children to see the movie.

The outlaw Cavendish doesn’t just shoot people dead; he also cuts out their hearts and eats them. Is this really necessary?

The movie also steals shamelessly from others: there’s a killer rabbit nicked from Monty Python and a whorehouse madam (Helena Bonham Carter) with a shotgun in her prosthetic leg, an idea thieved from Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. This kind of stuff worked for Verbinski’s Rango, the bizarre animated western in which Depp voice-starred as a six-shooting lizard, but it’s out of place here.

Meanwhile, there’s a potential romance in the person of Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina). Her character Rebecca catches the Ranger’s eye, but not his full attention. Can this relationship be started, let alone saved?

She’s confused about the Ranger, and so are we.

Who is this masked wimp, and why should we care?

Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.

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