Set to the brash horns of the William Tell Overture, the folks at Disney have brought us an origin story for one of the most iconic heroes of the Wild West. As long as you ignore its dark social commentary, bizarre identity issues and even more bizarre sense of geography, “The Lone Ranger” provides some of the most enjoyable thrills of summer 2013 so far.
But if you can’t, Disney’s summer tentpole might leave you cursing the name of director Gore Verbinski.
We first meet our hero (played by Armie Hammer) in his former life as John Reid, a prosecutor on his way to a new job in Colby, Texas. Unfortunately, his train is also carrying a criminal named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), and a mysterious Native American captive named Tonto (Johnny Depp, though you probably already knew that). When the Cavendish gang raids the train to free their leader, the mêlée eventually leads John to Dan (James Badge Dale), his heroic Texas Ranger brother, who is also married to the love of John’s life (Ruth Wilson).
From here, the prosecutor is quickly deputized and teams up with the other Rangers to go after Butch, but things don’t go so well (spoiler alert: they result in the “Lone” part of our hero’s title), and eventually the dynamic duo of the Lone Ranger and Tonto forms to bring justice to the gang.
This should be enough of a set-up to ride through the film, but we are also asked to navigate a number of peripheral plot lines involving railroads and silver mines and Native American relations that often feel unnecessary if not distracting. By the time the film comes to a head at the historic Promontory Point railroad junction, the audience might feel a tad bogged-down. And anyone with any sense of geography will feel completely violated, since the film seems to think Promontory is somewhere in North Texas. (Of course this could be forgivable, since the film also seems to think that Southern Utah is a dead ringer for North Texas.)
In its best moments, “The Lone Ranger” is a fun, slightly campy action film that hits a tone somewhere between Jackie Chan’s “Shanghai Noon” and the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” film Verbinski directed 10 years ago. When the familiar overture plays and the action gets going, the film is a great ride. And in an era obsessed with the dark origin stories of its heroes (see: “Man of Steel”), a film like that could have been a welcome breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, “The Lone Ranger’s” darker moments offer up some relatively graphic violence, including a tribal massacre and cannibalistic bunnies, and a movie that could have been a fun summer escape winds up with a 150-minute identity crisis. Punctuating its carefree moments with stretches of somber gloom — especially when addressing the plight of the Native American population — one wonders if the filmmakers were trying to atone for casting a war paint-covered white man speaking stilted English as the primary character from that population.
Still, Depp’s corny portrayal of Tonto is one of the things that keeps the film from completely succumbing to dark social commentary. It may not reach the iconic status of Captain Jack Sparrow, but it does its job here. Hammer does a reasonable job as the hero in the white hat, but often feels like the one playing the sidekick.
“The Lone Ranger” is a surprisingly dark PG-13 for a Disney vehicle. Profanity is mild and the sexual content is vague, but there is enough brutal violence for parents to consider keeping the younger kids away. And if they don’t, they should at least make sure to supervise their geography homework in the fall.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.