I remember seeing The Lone Ranger in theaters, back in 2013, despite the absolute beating it had been taking in the media. And I remember not understanding exactly what people had seen, or what they had wanted; what I had just seen was a big, broad, exciting, silly action movie that somehow, in the middle of the high-flying stunt work and set pieces, manages to examine some troubling moments in our nation’s past.
Critics were all too eager to shout, almost in unison, that Gore Verbinski’s Western, another attempted Disney franchise starter with Johnny Depp front and center, was too long and too tonally inconsistent. Overkill. The feeling was almost unanimous, save for a few faint praises, and it felt like an opinion formed in the weeks and months leading up to the film’s release. The proverbial fix was in, and The Lone Ranger was dead on arrival at the box office; after opening at number 2 over the July 4th weekend, it took a dramatic nosedive each subsequent weekend on its way to an anemic $89.3 million haul, peanuts compared to the $215 million budget.
It happens from time to time. A movie will be setup for failure before its release for a myriad of reasons, and most of the time these quality predictions aren’t too far off base. Critics will have their pitchforks ready and a lit match poised just beneath the kindling of their torches, ready to strike, and strike often as one. This transgressions of The Lone Ranger leading up to the film’s release centered around, for the most part, Johnny Depp.
In 2011, Depp mentioned wanting to play Tonto in a big-screen adaptation of The Lone Ranger, which was offensive enough to some. When it came to fruition, the think pieces emerged, with charges of cultural appropriation – a silly phrase in its own right – and racism heaved at the movie, specifically Depp’s strange look and idiosyncratic “stereotypes.” With the dead bird as a headpiece and the zebra-like warpaint, and the comedic angle Depp takes with the character had many wondering if it was in bad taste. In fact, the entire film was deemed, by many self-imposed gatekeepers of the culture as “too racist” to have ever happened in the first place.
There are racist characters in The Lone Ranger. Some may call them the villains of the picture, which makes sense given their racism, but that never seemed to factor into the logic. Nevertheless, Verbinski’s sharply self-aware epic was doomed. Depp’s portrayal, was supposedly dangerous because this one specific fictional character’s traits might be applied to an entire race of people, much like what happened when the original radio show and television serials ran through the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Maybe some people will attach the silliness of Depp’s portrayal to an entire race of human beings, but those people are complete fools and should be disregarded in any cultural conversations anyway. Why are we worried with how idiots could misinterpret the intentions of a character in a Disney adventure?
It’s conceivable that all the critics who thumbed their nose at The Lone Ranger agreed with their own negative sentiments. It’s probable, really. There is no conspiracy theory here, just evidence of widespread groupthink from time to time; again, it happens all the time, in all avenues of life. But a little more than five years have passed since The Lone Ranger was released, and those feelings I had at the theater that afternoon, back in the summer of 2013, have only strengthened.
The Lone Ranger is long, but it moves. It’s tonally inconsistent, but remove the stigma from that phrase; it jumps from serious drama to broad comedy to big, silly action set pieces with gleeful energy. Tonal inconsistencies definitely hurt certain films, but that’s hardly an issue with a large-scale factory product like this. The movie is supposed to cover a great deal of ground. It also manages to shine a light on the horrors of America’s progress in the West, built on the back of Asian slave labor. If anything, it condemns the racism that helped build this country, time and time again; to say it the movie is “racist” supposes that Verbinski and the platoon of screenwriters intentionally and maliciously maligned an entire race. That simply isn’t the case.
All cultural brouhaha aside, consider the cast. There is Depp, of course, and The Lone Ranger himself, played by Armie Hammer, who is so clearly having fun. I’m not sure what else you need from him in this role, he’s one of the more underrated stars working in Hollywood. The rogues gallery of villains includes Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, and William Fitchner; Ruth Wilson is the love interest, Rebecca, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the mysterious Red Harrington, who has a cannon for a leg; character actors like the great James Badge Dale, Stephen Root, and… well, you get the point. This is an impressive cast, filled with talent, and the talent is all having a good time playing up archetypes.
The action is outstanding, a mixture of practical effects and stunt work and CGI. It goes over the top early and often, but the spatial geography is always sound. The climax of the film, a complicated train chase sequence, is when we get the Ranger’s iconic theme, and it is a thrilling moment that pays off to near perfection:
Verbinski’s palette is beautiful, and the Bojan Bazelli cinematography is rich and it gives the film more of an identity than so many run-of-the-mill big franchise wannabe films that come and go every summer. The pairing of Gore Verbinski and Disney is an unusual and inconceivable marriage considering Verbinski’s specific, indulgent style and his fascinating collection of non-Disney work; for that, it should at least be appreciated.
The Lone Ranger is far from a perfect movie, but that’s not really the point. It’s fun, and it’s big, and the performances hearken back to epic studio productions of the mid-20th century, which makes sense given the subject matter. Film culture has changed over the last five years, and genre film is seeing a resurgence for a myriad of reasons; perhaps it’s time to stop clutching pearls and give Verbinski’s Golden-Age throwback another look with a new perspective.