The fact that Johnny Depp alone gets top billing above the title, “The Lone Ranger,” despite not playing said character sums up the generally misguided approach taken by Depp and the creative crew behind the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise in bringing last century’s radio and TV hero back to the big screen in a big way.
The story begins, needlessly, in 1933 -- the year that The Lone Ranger originally hit the airwaves -- as a young boy in San Francisco encounters a decrepit Tonto (Depp) as part of a travelling sideshow. The boy’s Ranger-aping attire prompts Tonto to recollect their original adventures together decades earlier, as the Native American outcast and left-for-dead lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) reluctantly teamed up to avenge their families, each having been ruthlessly slain by cannibalistic fiend Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, suitably dastardly) and his band of outlaws.
That sounds simple enough, right? A 149-minute running time bloated with flashbacks, flash-forwards and non-surprises galore says otherwise, although why should one expect anything less between director Gore Verbinski, co-writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and producer Jerry Bruckheimer? Being veterans of the two most recent “Zorro” films, Elliott and Rossio should have known to keep the action, treachery and romance plain and simple; after four “Pirates” films, it’s little wonder that they couldn’t manage that. Justin Haythe was brought in to rewrite their script, reportedly pruning down costly supernatural elements and yet still leaving room for a scorpion attack, a brothel visit (accounting for half of Helena Bonham Carter’s two scenes as a one-legged madam), belching horses, pooping horses, sporadic commentary on the damnable reach of the White Man (epitomized by railroad magnate Tom Wilkinson) into a new frontier and so much lip service regarding the true nature of justice.
In the middle stretch between the film’s admittedly cracking train-set bookends, we get plenty of Depp’s quirky schtick, as he feeds a dead bird atop his head and makes backhanded remarks in broken English (shades of 2011’s update of “The Green Hornet”). We’re treated to more of Tonto’s tragic backstory than we are of John’s, despite his seemingly contentious return to his hometown following years of law education back east. His brother (James Badge Dale) is a Texas Ranger who sees little need for due process; his brother’s wife (Ruth Wilson) clearly used to have a thing for John, but she and her boy (Bryant Prince) are little more than two-for-one damsels to be later distressed. Once the first act sets up these relationships, the Lone Ranger is only ever a larger presence than Tonto in his own film thanks to Hammer’s towering height more than his proven charms.
Otherwise, it’s back to our questionably reliable narrator, a Jack Sparrow once again thrust from serving the role of priceless sidekick to becoming a listless leading man, prattling on about how “nature is out of balance” and trading in the same half-dozen sub-routines of deadpan wackiness. Those worried about the potential offensiveness of Depp’s performance should know that genuine Native American characters are eventually introduced to serve two purposes: to distance Tonto’s off-kilter ways from their own tribe, and to then be mowed down in a pointless hail of second-act gunfire. Similar acts of violence taint the would-be lightness of it all: workers are yanked down from power poles by passing trains which soon crash, despite cars shown to be filled with passengers, while henchmen’s heads are handily crushed without so much as a smidge of blood shown. (Way to still land a PG-13, Disney! Take that, snaggle-toothed cross-dressers!)
But hey, hearts aren’t going to cut themselves out of chest cavities to be swallowed whole. Sadly, such disingenuous touches are par for the remaining course. Verbinski treats the first act with relative gravity, playing up the striking vistas of the American Southwest and generally distancing himself from the computer-generated hullabaloo that had dominated his three “Pirates” pictures and this film’s opening sequence. There’s at least one shot of the Reid Brothers and company framed against a particularly ominous pass that suggests a classical fondness for Westerns, one not beholden to the oddball prism of Verbinski and Depp’s last collaboration, “Rango,” and briefly beautiful in its own right, and even when the climactic chase between two criss-crossing trains has all the gravity of a toy train run off the rails not long before, this action sequence finally comes closest to capturing the freewheeling spirit of that Oscar-winning animated effort.
Until then, Depp prances about while the expected white men gradually reveal their greedy schemes (although enough about Jerry Bruckheimer...). By the time the William Tell Overture finally kicks in for the big finale, it’s not just a welcome callback to the Ranger’s original cultural legacy, but a respite from composer Hans Zimmer’s relentless recycling of his own “Pirates” and “Sherlock Holmes” scores. Then the movie ends, and ends, and ends, with the promise (threat?) of further adventures to come. At their best, “Caribbean” and “Rango” represented the ideal outcome of a costly creative collaboration, lively and lithe despite their blockbuster burdens. “The Lone Ranger” isn’t that. It’s the end result of a calculated brand -- two and a half hours of “fun” in air quotes.
SCORE: 5.5 / 10