"What's with the mask?" is a question frequently asked throughout "The Lone Ranger," both as a running gag and a reminder it seems, that the film will give you everything you ever wanted to know about masked hero, and then some. Walt Disney's high-priced potential franchise has a lot riding on it, and not just the pricetag which is well north of $215 million (not including marketing). If successful, it could mean yet another series tied to megastar Johnny Depp (who has a fifth "Pirates Of The Caribbean," and a second "Alice In Wonderland" brewing at the studio) and another property joining the studio's growing list of annual revenue streams. So perhaps it's not a surprise that they want to make sure that audiences everywhere get as much mythology and background on The Lone Ranger and Tonto, particularly as they are two old-fashioned, decades old characters that might be out of step with Superman and Iron Man type heroes of today. But it's just too bad all that franchise building gets in the way of telling a good yarn.
The first sign of trouble arrives right off the bat, as the movie opens in 1933 San Francisco. You see, "The Lone Ranger" toys need little boys to buy them, and so, the audience is given a little boy surrogate (wearing full cowboy gear and a Lone Ranger mask, of course), who wanders into a Wild West tent at a local fair, and pauses in front of an exhibit featuring what looks to be an aged mannequin of an Indian. But he's alive! You see it's Tonto, who for some reason is living in this diorama, who then decides to regale this little kid with the complete history of his adventures with The Lone Ranger, since the child's get up makes him misty eyed. It's not explained where the Lone Ranger is, why Tonto is part of a traveling sideshow, where the kid's parents are or why no one else walks by. The movie will keep jumping back to this kid to ask obvious questions about the plot throughout the movie, a tedious bit of narrative that grinds an already too long movie, nearly to a halt every time.
Spanning two and a half hours, director Gore Verbinski is certainly given a lot of rope to play with, and again, a lot of money. And he makes the most of it. The picture looks great, with every worn piece of leather, battered piece of lumber, cloud of dust, pile of dirt and more, lensed handsomely and with care. "Rango" showed that Verbinski was more than comfortable within the genre, and transitioning to live action for another western, he doesn't miss a beat. The widescreen vistas make you think John Wayne might come striding into the frame any second. But mostly, the coin is spent on the action sequences, which don't get better than the spectacular train setpiece that opens the film, though it closes admirably with a duel train chase at the climax. But in the middle? Maybe they should have done another rewrite...
Simply put, the actual story (once it's finally put into motion) is dreadfully dull. The short version is essentially this: after his brother is murdered by the flesh eating baddie Butch Cavendish (a disgusting and barely recognizable William Fichtner), noble lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) teams with the noble Indian Tonto (Depp) who saved his life, and together they investigate why Dan Reid was killed, and try to find some justice. As a John Locke reading modern man, Reid puts his faith in The System, while Tonto is more eager for blood, with Butch just one part of a bigger picture that explains why this Indian rides alone. But the boring truth revolves around land treaties and valuable real estate, and you'll figure it all out long before the characters on screen do, which is a major problem.
Because, while Depp (finding an engaging restrained balance between Benny and Jack Sparrow) and Hammer (hitting heroic, but often misguided straight man perfectly) are solid in the lead roles, for most of the picture, The Lone Ranger and Tonto aren't really a well oiled, bad guy busting machine. Because this movie wants to be the first in a series, and assumes there will be another movie, a good chunk of "The Lone Ranger" is mostly spent with our crime fighting duo wandering around the desert investigating the murder, while getting into various Odd Couple-esque situations that often put them in danger. There will even be that moment where the pair separate, like the template for this kind of movie always maps out, before they are quickly reunited and finally believing in one another, they make one more grand hurrah, but this time as a team. And while a well executed formula can be winningly entertaining, stretched out and then saddled with the kind of story that even includes a corporate boardroom scene (you know, for kids!), "The Lone Ranger" often sags when it should gallop.
And yet, within that well worn framework, there are some bigger ideas in here that either don't get enough play or simply don't work. Perhaps the most compelling is John Reid's transition from lawman to disillusioned lawman to empowered outlaw. Unable to even get Butch in front of a judge despite his best efforts, and seeing corrupt authority figures protecting the crooked instead of the innocent, Reid finally accepts his destiny as a fighter who answers to his own moral code. But this shift comes far too late in the movie, and mostly just in time for the climax, and never makes that change in ideology as deeply resonant as it needs to be. Meanwhile, the genocide of the Native American population during the 1800s becomes a plot point as well, but this serious tone jars against an already tonally uneven movie, that wants to both embrace the innocence of the source material, while presenting more sober and mature elements for a contemporary audience. (And some of is this is presented so thuddingly obviously -- Barry Pepper's military general having literal blood on his hands -- that it can at times feel like a history class). That the original theme song falls flat in the grand finale is a telling sign that the movie never quite coheres.
But, it's thanks to Verbinski that the film doesn't fall into "John Carter"-esque formlessness. Toss out the framing device, and you do have a well structured film that is so solidly put together, that you kind of wish the director had just gone off and made a regular western for grownups, and one that didn't follow a blueprint (or had to be part of a franchise). A picture where the raciness of the brothels could be fully embraced (instead of leaving it to the heaving bosom and long, ivory leg of Helena Bonham Carter's madam Red) and the violence as shocking as it wants to be (though Verbinski pushes the edge of PG-13 with scalpings, organ removals and outright slaughter -- parents should be cautioned if they're thinking of taking younger kids). And perhaps he could spend more time on a love story with a bit more weight to it than the few script pages Ruth Wilson has to salvage (which she does admirably) before an obvious, if half-heartedly realized, payoff.
However, "The Lone Ranger" is the movie we got, and while the talent involved put their best foot forward, the movie suffers because it's ultimately preamble. By the time the origin movie stuff is wrapped up and the audience finally gets to see The Lone Ranger and Tonto on the first of their legendary deeds, it's far too late in the movie, particularly if your patience has already been drained by the simple yet over-elaborately staged plot, that struggles to be compelling. You may find out "What's with the mask," why Silver got named and how The Lone Ranger and Tonto got together, but you'll be missing the adventure that made them legends. [C-]