What flop? One of the best blockbusters of the year rides into town
Arriving in the UK with the word ‘FLOP’ seared into its flesh, thanks to a lacklustre marketing campaign, an underwhelming performance at the box office stateside and a critical mauling in many quarters, Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer’s adaptation of The Lone Ranger had a bad reputation before it even opened. All the more reason to rejoice then that it turns out to be one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year: full of spectacular action, eccentric humour and loving nods to the entire history of the western genre. Most surprising of all is that the near two and a half hour running time just flies by. Why can’t all flops be this much fun?
Veteran screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, alongside Justin Haythe, have reconstructed the origins of this pulp 1930s hero to give him a somewhat more contemporary edge, allowing humour to seep in without tripping in to spoof territory, just as they did for 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, its spiritual cousin (large chunks of that film’s plot have been recycled here, in fact). Beginning in 1930s San Francisco, an aged Tonto (Johnny Depp, once again playing someone several beers short of a six-pack), now living in a travelling circus show, recounts to an awestruck young boy the tale of how he and John Reid (Armie Hammer) first met and tried to bring justice to the Wild West. Reid, an idealistic young lawyer, arrives in Texas looking to bring notorious criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to justice, and tags along with older brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his fellow Texan Rangers in their hunt for him.
When the group is ambushed by Cavendish’s gang, all are killed save John, whom Tonto – an exiled Comanche whose peculiar choice of headwear would not endear him to ornithologists – rescues from the brink of death. Matters are complicated by shifty railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), keen to progress his business through Indian territory and terminate the outlaw menace once and for all. This is the first of many nods to the classic cowboy films of yore, starting with Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West. The idea that the railroad ushered in civilization and new opportunities on the one hand, and on the other took away livelihoods and the old way of life is resurrected here. And, as in Leone’s masterpiece, the story begins with a group of men on a station platform waiting for a train to arrive. Ubiquitous composer Hans Zimmer neatly reworks Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable score in places, just in case you were in any doubt in which direction hats were being tipped.
Other great westerns are ticked off too: The Searchers, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, even Buster Keaton’s The General. But director Gore Verbinski, reuniting with Depp ten years after they collaborated on the first Pirates of the Caribbean, darkens the brew with the same line of absurdist humour he brought to that series. This delightfully daffy streak shines through most obviously in Depp’s performance, which is quite Jack Sparrow-esque in the way Tonto’s quirks are never quite confirmed as genuine madness or mere affectations. The comedy horse routine from Zorro returns here with a vengeance too.
The risk this film ran was that the Ranger would become a supporting character in his own film, playing second fiddle in The Johnny Depp Show, but that’s not the case; it feels like the focus is split between them roughly 50/50. Armie Hammer successfully balances Depp’s off-kilter turn with his more traditional straight man, and the pairing works well. Some critics seem to have decided they have had enough of Depp’s colourful madman routine, even though it’s entirely in keeping with the affectionate spirit of the story about a mythical Old West now consigned to folklore and fiction (Tonto’s attentive listener at the beginning can barely believe his luck).
There’s oodles of satisfying action set-pieces: the early runaway train sequence is emphatically topped by a ridiculously rousing finale set to Rossini’s William Tell Overture (part and parcel of the character since his debut on the radio some 80 years ago) that nearly resurrects the spirit of Keaton, and is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone who ever fired cap guns at their mates back in the day. Verbinski also finds room for emotion; the moment when a series of feathers float down a river is unexpectedly poignant. It may not be without its flaws – Ruth Wilson as Dan’s wife and Helena Bonham Carter as a red-headed madam are both largely wasted, and the wraparound story slows the pace without adding a great deal – but this is glorious entertainment, and it would be churlish to focus on its minor flaws and the speculative press stories of budget overruns when the end product is such damn fine fun.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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