03 July 2016

Three Years Gone: Revisiting The Lone Ranger. Again.

Ever since its premiere three years ago, my obsession with understanding the abject failure of The Lone Ranger (2013) has somewhat consumed me. It's such a curious story to me because it seems to get at the overblown failure of most modern blockbusters, although on paper there's no reason why it should have failed, and after having seen the thing a few times now in the past three years, there's also no real reason to think it's even a bad movie.
This really reminded me of The LEGO Movie (2014).

So, to place this film in context, the only reason it exists at all is The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), which was somewhat improbably successful (there has been a surprising dearth of imitator pirate films in its wake), and led to two gargantuan sequels, the first of which, Dead Man's Chest (2006) soared to become at the time, only the third film to cross the billion dollar worldwide mark at the box office. At World's End (2007) is surely the most insane of the trilogy, but perhaps also the best. That film juggles an insane amount of plot, ridiculous action, a full-on movement towards the surreal, and finds room for plenty of call-backs, deeply embedded character symbolism, and rich yet totally insane characters.

In many ways, The Lone Ranger feels like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie set in the Wild West. Much of the same team returned, from director Gore Verblinksi, to star Johnny Depp, but also producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot. From there they really just supplanted trains for ships and cowboys for pirates and massive deserts for endless oceans and you got a film there.

There's no reason to expect that the old adventure-style Lone Ranger would be that well-received, but when's the last time a swashbuckling pirate movie was treated seriously? This is in the wake of Cutthroat Island (1995) and hell, even Muppet Treasure Island (1996). The thing of it is, The Lone Ranger acts like a version of Pirates of the Caribbean where all the elements are refined, simplified, and executed with a sharper brilliance and knack for expansive yet idiosyncratic storytelling.

It was ostensibly dragged down by development hell, a damning overblown budget, and a simple lack of interest in the source material, even though it's a Lone Ranger movie exactly as much as Black Pearl is an amusement park ride movie. There are many more factors rumbling around, though. Some of these were discussed at the time, and it's interesting how much Despicable Me 2 (2013) triumphed that weekend, although by now that films' content is fairly blurry to me.
Clearly the second-best Tonto ever.

We're still in the middle of this, but in 2013 we were really knee-deep in Johnny Depp "Wacky Character" exhaustion. Even though he virtually disappears into Tonto the way he does into Jack Sparrow, he crafts a distinct character, playing him as eccentric without being aggressive or a buffoon. There's a lot of pain to his Tonto; pain that's essential to the story and his own character arc. Still, in the marketing material this seemed a whole lot like "Oh whatever!" It's tough to get up and amped for another white-faced Depp character (he plays an amazing high amount of them). As 2016's Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) just proved, we're still in eye-rolling mode for his antics, regardless if they do or do not have merit.

It's also very plain to see that no one cares about either Old West action epics or big-budget adaptations of pulp material. John Carter (2012) is plain evidence of both these elements, even if it starts as a Western and ends as a Fantasy. Everything from Wild Wild West (1999) to Cowboys & Aliens (2011) suggests the genre's instability. While this weekend's Legend of Tarzan (2016) opened ten million higher than The Lone Ranger, it's also still a drastically underperforming template to base a genre around.

Now, one important thing is the overblown budget. Not only was this a oft-repeated means of knocking down the film (for some reason. I'm not sure why anyone cares about budgets or source material. The only thing worth caring about is the film itself), but it would have actually been profitable if it cost less, and not much of the purported $215 million appears on screen. It earned a mind-bogglingly low $89 million stateside and $260 worldwide, but truth be told, this film failed more as a cultural black hole. I remember seeing Lone Ranger LEGO sets, as if that'd ever take off. Something about that whiff is just sad and desperate.

I have suggested this before, but I'll say again, that the biggest reason for its failure is that he central conceit of the film is a huge blow to the myth of American manifest destiny and a reminder of our blood soaked and treacherous history of industrial corruption and Indian genocide. Maybe it wasn't the the greatest film to come out Independence Day Weekend. These are some really important concepts, though, and part of the thrill of watching this flick again is its boldness in addressing some relatively unpopular sentiments.

In this way its themes surpass PotC, although it still has some tonal issues with its tendency to switch between brutal heart-eating action set-pieces, addressing genocide, and silly horses in trees. The dueling train finale is very much the equal if not superior to the Maelstrom of At World's End, in part because it juggles less pieces of plot, offers more of a focused goal (even if that goal is actually non-existent - they blew up the bridge anyway!), and is a bit more grounded in reality. The triple villains also echo the big bads of At World's End - like the establishment, over-arching villain (Cutler Beckett / Latham Cole), the rogue gross dude (Davy Jones / Butch Cavendish), and the instrument of government oppression, a man torn by honor (Captain Norrington / Captain Fuller).

Verblinski also seems really into his repeated character motifs, such as the pocket watch that symbolizes Cole's greed and corruption and crow/seeds that signify Tonto. Repeated viewings give greater meaning to Cole fondling the pocket watch near the beginning of the film or Tonto exchanging seed for dead men's belongings. They become elements equal to Barbossa's Apple or Will Turner's sword that add little cohesive details to everything else wacky going on around it.

Its length is surely bloated, but its imagination and characters are pretty solid. The middle is certainly a slog to get through, but it's also the richest in theme and meaning. Armie Hammer still isn't great for some reason, even though I find myself liking him and his inherently noble characteristics work well for the role. There's something off about the casting, though, perhaps just a lack of charisma or actual reason to cheer for the character, even though he has a well-developed an intricate arc from prude to rude. Then again, perhaps that's why the film routinely states that this the wrong brother, wrong hero, and wrong protagonist leading everything.

On that note, like I mentioned earlier, there are certain things that don't really make sense. Why does John Reid wake up at the top of an impossibly tall wooden tower in the middle of the desert? Why is "nature out of balance" with these mysterious elements like carnivorous rabbits that are never exactly addressed? Finally, the end train conflict actually only exists to serve as action for the sake of action, since the same result would have taken place regardless if Tonto and the Lone Ranger had done anything (they blew up the bridge, meaning that no matter what Cole would have plummeted with his silver to his death). I suppose Tonto distracts him enough so that he doesn't see the missing bridge and slow down. And they rescue John's brother's widow (which, it's also totally weird that he's hooking up with her), although that's treated as more a side consequence to their assault.

What works is that all of this can be explained by the bookending Tonto narrator structure, which proves many times to be an unreliable narrator. He embellishes, skips around, and fully admits to lies and story changes. It may be a cheat, but Verblinski and Depp execute fairly effectively, with a layer of cheekiness that winks at its audience expecting a straightforward story and instead turns a lot of typical blockbuster elements on their head.

All this is not necessarily to say that The Lone Ranger is a great movie. There are many issues, most of which I dug into here. It's certainly no worse than any PotC movie, though, and probably the best summer blockbuster of 2013, or at least right under Pacific Rim (2013). I'm most curious about how or why its legacy got so unjustly maligned.

What do you think?


  1. Well I can say that I ignored this film because I was pretty much sick of Johnny Depp and his wacky antics. And as you pointed out, the trailers were all about how wacky and "fun" Depp was going to be as Tonto. And I was also annoyed as hell that they didn't get an actual native american to play Tonto. Instead we get wacky Depp being wacky again.

    I'm also not a huge fan of the Pirate sequels. The first film is fun enough but runs a bit long. But when "Lone Ranger" came out I had a dim memory of not enjoying the Pirate sequels too much and finding them to be really way too long. A recent revisit confirmed that feeling completely - those two movies never ended and were way less entertaining than I remembered.

    Anyway at that point saying "From the creators of Pirates of the Caribbean" and plastering Depp's face all over the marketing actually kept me from being remotely interested. I only really engaged the movie when I listed to some tracks form the score which was actually pretty good and had a killer finale piece.

  2. The Score is incredible, mostly for the William Tell Overture, which is obviously one of the more famous pieces of classical music linked to a bit of pop culture. Merit aside, I'm always kind of curious why this stumbled while Pirates made box office bank.


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