The scuttle from the set of the prodigiously expensive "The Lone Ranger," the latest movie from the producer, writers and director behind the lucrative "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, was that Gore Verbinski was yet another runaway director run amok, not unlike Michael Cimino on "Heaven's Gate," lavishing millions of dollars on building two working 250-ton 19th-century style trains (hydraulic, not steam) to run on a five-mile oval track with a stretch of double tracks, among other things.
The film's turbulent production history included neophyte Disney studio head Rich Ross (since replaced by ex-Warners president Alan Horn, 70, who talks about the movie to THR here) pulling back the budget from $260 million to greenlight the film at $215 million. Dream on. Verbinski's attitude during production was to spend freely to make the movie he wanted, presumably on the basis that the four "Pirates" films (not all directed by him) had grossed $3.7 billion at the global box office. Everyone in Hollywood knows that the studio will not get back its estimated $400 million to make and market the film worldwide. Especially with a western, as any domestic shortfall is unlikely to be recouped overseas. This could be another $200 million "John Carter" write-off for the studio. And put a crimp in Disney producer Bruckheimer's free-spending ways.
But as a moviegoer, while the picture is indulgently long at two hours and 29 minutes, there is much to look at on that screen. There had better be. From the period sets, CG horses and buffalo and real trains to Monument Valley vistas, this is one gorgeous movie, set in classic western territory, post-Civil War period, in 1869. The filmmakers wound up shooting over four months in the most glorious locations in four western states: California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, in stunning 35 mm. There is serious craft on display. (The Academy screening this weekend was packed.)
Western fans, at least, should enjoy "The Lone Ranger" (although that aging demo will not a blockbuster make). This movie is no "Cowboys & Aliens," which was a too-pricey western tentpole wannabe that didn't deliver as a real western at all. After all, Verbinski lavished loving care on Oscar-winning animated western "Rango" --voiced by "Pirates" star Johnny Depp, who here plays Tonto with a considerable debt to deadpan silent comedian Buster Keaton and his inventive train stunts in "The General." (While Keaton famously broke his neck on one of those stunts imitated here, the end credits for "Lone Ranger" stuntmen go on for miles.)
But there's something else more rare than ever in movies today. It is evident from the first frame to the last that these filmmakers are having a great time. They have thrown caution out the door. They don't give a fig about marketing and focus groups--despite their posturing in the recent weekly Variety. Yes, this is an origin myth. The Lone Ranger is another version of a superhero, but from our own past, according to Bruckheimer & Co., which set out with "Pirates" scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe to reinvigorate and update the square 80-year-old "Hi-yo Silver"-calling Texas Ranger and his laconic Native American sidekick. (The last movie version "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" was a notorious flop in 1981, starring Klinton Spilsbury.)
This movie is ironic yet sincere, historic yet fictional, mythic yet comedic. The filmmakers are walking a tightrope between what's corny and stupid --Armie Hammer is well-cast as the sweet innocent eastern-educated lawyer John Reid who comes home to grow into manhood as a Texas Ranger like his older brother. The vehicle of his maturation? Tonto, brilliantly played by Depp as a solemn and wise man on his own revenge mission. Depp makes him Comanche, in both a framing device as an old man telling his tall tale to a kid in a masked cowboy getup, and as a sexily athletic mature warrior, as befits his age, 50. (They throw away one joke line about what Tonto means in Spanish --"stupid").
Verbinski has now worked with Depp four times. Will Depp pull enough moviegoers to justify this thankfully 2-D movie's cost? Unlikely, judging from early pans. (See below.) What marquee loyalty does Depp command when he's not Jack Sparrow? Neither "Sweeney Todd" nor "The Tourist" were slamdunks, topping out at $153.3 million and $278.7 million (mostly foreign) worldwide, respectively.
The movie co-stars Helena Bonham Carter in a small but colorful role as a whorehouse madam, who played opposite Depp in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" and "Alice in Wonderland," Ruth Wilson ("Anna Karenina") as the woman who married Reid's brother, and Tom Wilkinson as the Sergio Leone avaricious cardboard villain of the piece. Needless to say western references abound, from John Ford to Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" --from "Shall We Gather at the River" and scorpions to rigging a rickety railroad bridge to blow--to Leone, especially the railroad plot from "Once Upon a Time in the West," including the infamous opening sequence waiting for the train to arrive. Even the use of sound in the Leone film--the wind brings a premonition of bad news-- is borrowed here.
Also derivative is Hans Zimmer's score, which quotes many classic themes from Ennio Morricone and others --there's a bizarre credit on the screen about how the score is based on music owned by the Disney Co. The arrival of the William Tell Overture is used to good effect. Zimmer is at his best here, riding along with the movie's shifts in tone from comedy to action to sincerity. This movie is self-consciously aware of its lack of originality. it's nothing if not reflexive. Is it as smart and sharp as Quentin Tarantino's own spaghetti western, "Django Unchained"? No. It's still in the service of a wide-audience popular entertainment.
The movie sticks to the basic outlines of the original 1933 radio series "The Lone Ranger," in which six Texas Rangers are ambushed by a band of outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (deliciously malicious Bruckheimer go-to villain William Fichtner). Tonto enters the scene and recognizes survivor John Reid as a man who had saved his life before and revives him. He digs six graves for the Rangers including Reid's brother. The movie gets more elaborate about just how and why Reid must wear the bullet-riddled mask from his brother's leather vest to conceal his identity. "Better he should stay dead," is Tonto's basic reasoning. Both men are dead set on wreaking revenge on Cavendish; Tonto's reasons eventually become clear in a long flashback that totally slows down the film, as does its silly and unnecessary framing device.
The "Pirates"movies have long eschewed conventional narrative in favor of long strings of set pieces on the theory that throwing all their VFX spending on-screen pays off with younger audiences. That strategy may not work in this case. The movie is too long, unfocused and meandering. Even if the train stunts are fabulous.
Review roundup, trailer and other historic clips below.