The year is 1869 and railway companies are spreading their tracks across the continent. Onboard a train that’s headed towards Colby, Texas sits District Attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer). In another compartment sits the deadly criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), although he is being transported to Colby to be hanged; and next to Butch sits a Comanche named Tonto (Johnny Depp). These are three of the principal characters in the film. It is quickly established that Butch is planning an escape; that Tonto had tracked Butch throughout the past 26 years and is planning to kill him for a yet to be disclosed reason; and that John, a naive pacifist, inadvertently ruins Tonto plans.
A remarkably well shot, well choreographed, and well executed action sequence ensues. Butch gets away and John and Tonto are handcuffed to each other. Tonto doesn’t like John because he interfered with his murderous plans, but they do eventually become partners because it was written in the stars.
Shortly after, John joins his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger, and a group of other Rangers in search of the Cavendish Gang. They are almost immediately ambushed and murdered. However, Tonto brings John back from the afterlife because his “spirit horse” had chosen John as the Great Spirit Walker.
If the above sounds a tad kooky that’s because the story of the film is told in flashback format. The film actually opens in San Francisco in the year 1933, and in a carnival. A young boy dressed as a cowboy enters an Old West exhibit. There he sees a display titled “The Noble Savage”. It’s bare bones and it depicts a tepee and a full sized statue of a Native American. The Native comes to life and begins to tell the kid the tale of John Reed and Tonto. The then audience understands that this is in fact Tonto and that the rest of the film purposely seems slightly exaggerated at times, because it’s told from Tonto’s point of view. It is the very quintessence of a picaresque* style of storytelling.
Well, after John’s resurrection he dons a black mask in order to hide his identity from the men that killed him, his brother, and the other six Texas Rangers. He is never given the name The Lone Ranger, but often times characters throughout the film refer to him “that masked Ranger” or “that lone Ranger”. It’s cute and properly falls in line with the styling of those episodic movie and TV serials from the days of yore.
There’s a lot to like about this film. For starters, it’s the best shot film that I’ve seen all year. Director Gore Verbinski and ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) went out of their way to blend CGI with practical effects in a practical manner, often blending them into backgrounds unnoticed. There’s also a great deal of practical special effects, and real men riding on real horses.
There are lots of characters that are shot dead on screen, and Butch Cavendish himself is a cannibal. The film’s tone is generally that of a light drama, with spurts of humor (sometimes silly just to liven the mood) sprinkled throughout. It’s not as blatant a comedy as Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy, and as I mentioned previously, lots of characters die on screen.
There are the two main themes of silver and progress. The railroad is a terrific form of progress and the word “progress” is uttered several times throughout the film, in case no one was paying attention. However, if “progress” means wiping out several Comanche tribes just so the railways could stretch across the continent, then so be it; the film’s villains are truly despicable. And I won’t even get into the “silver” of the story. The word has many uses throughout the film, and it’s represented physically and symbolically, as well as metaphorically.
Then there’s the huge and impossible to miss influence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968 – OUATITW from now on). Without spoilers, Tonto’s motivation for revenge is remarkably similar to those of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica; and there’s also a soundbite from Harmonica’s theme song embedded into one of the best songs in the film, titled “Absurdity”.
Lastly, there’s Hans Zimmer’s score for the film which is absolutely fantastic. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Westerns in order to fall in love with it immediately. It is generally beautiful and often times thrilling, sometimes even chilling. It’s brilliant.
I’m not going to compare this film’s storyline to that of the original radio show, TV series, and older films simply because I hadn’t ever watched anything related to The Lone Ranger before. I initially watched this film in the theatres as is, without any preconceived notions, and absolutely loved it. And I still do.
The cinematography is top notch- shots are beautifully composed and tend to last more than a few seconds; the score is terrific; OUATITW’s influence on Tonto’s character, the film’s brilliant soundtrack, and a large part of the “bad guy’s scheme” is a great touch; the story is very good and very coherently told; not a single shot is out of place and every single character in the film serves a purpose; Hammer and Depp’s performances are fine but are outclassed by Fichtner’s and Tom Wilkinson’s (yes, he’s also in the film); and it’s a Western! I love Westerns! I don’t go out of my way to watch them but when one commences, a smile almost immediately grows on my face.
Most importantly, the film knows exactly how to have fun. There’s a terrifically well crafted action sequence during the film’s climax and during it we hear the William Tell Overture, forever immortalized in the Lone Ranger Theme Song. It’s a blast.
The Lone Ranger is my absolute favorite film of 2013. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s all about how you feel about it at the end of the day. On multiple viewings one can perceive just how well made the film is on all accounts, and most especially on how well it delivers a story that deals with the greediness of mankind and what it takes to fight injustice when the justice system is broken.
I highly recommend this film as pure escapism and also as a sign that good filmmaking still exists on this continent.
*An episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.