Last week, despite getting a jump on the weekend competition by opening on Wednesday and having additional screenings the previous Tuesday, “The Lone Ranger” fell off the box-office cliff. And it deserved to.
The movie is surprisingly awful. It disrespects the title character, portraying him as a clueless doofus, and it disrespects the Western genre, wasting the gorgeous Monument Valley and Moab landscapes by washing out the beauty of its natural colors so they’re as dull as the script.
The film is also needlessly violent in the extreme, with many innocent victims being viciously, callously and casually killed off in cold blood. At one point someone’s chest is ripped open and his heart eaten (off-camera, thankfully). This is what gets a PG-13 when it carries the Disney banner!
Director Gore Verbinski seems to think “The Lone Ranger” is a spinoff of his “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “Pirates of the Prairie,” perhaps. The villains all look like Pirates refugees, filthy, perverse and sleazy; the action is over the top, ridiculously contrived and unsatisfying; and Johnny Depp’s Tonto is just a variation on Jack Sparrow. There’s also more CGI than you can shake a cartoony stick at.
There’s also a weird wraparound story that seems to be riffing on “Little Big Man.” That 1970 Western, starring Dustin Hoffman, was a delicate mix of satirical, comical and tragic elements, but “The Lone Ranger’s” tonal shifts are jarring and haphazard and never seem to fit together.
This is another example of Hollywood’s incessant need to fix things that aren’t broken, to reinvent genres that movie-studio executives perceive as antiquated. The Western does fine when the genre is simply allowed to convey an emotional story that is relatable. Recent films that got it right include “True Grit” (2010, PG-13 for violence, gore, language), “Appaloosa” (2008, R for violence, profanity, gore, brief nudity), “3:10 to Yuma” (2007, R for violence, gore, profanity) and “Open Range” (2003, R for violence, language, gore, drug content).
True, some of these movies fiddle with the genre’s tropes, to greater or lesser degrees, but all of them generally stick with tradition, and it should be noted that two, “True Grit” and “3:10 to Yuma,” are remakes, and whether they are better or lesser versions is up for debate.
So let’s look at “Appaloosa” and “Open Range,” since both tend to embrace the Western with not just respect but something approaching a deeper attachment.
Plot-wise, both films are fairly straightforward. “Appaloosa” has a marshal and his deputy being hired by the title town to deal with a thuggish land-grabber with a passel of equally evil gunslingers in his employ. And, of course, there’s a woman who initially takes up with the marshal but proves to be more (or less) than she seems.
In “Open Range,” the two lead characters are among a small crew of drovers passing by a town when they decide to stop for supplies, but the nasty town boss hates free-ranging cattle and causes difficulties, which leads to necessary reprisals. There’s also a tentative romance here, but in this case she is exactly what she seems to be, a woman of integrity.
It’s clear that “Appaloosa’s” director/star Ed Harris and “Open Range’s” director/star Kevin Costner are both wholeheartedly and unabashedly passionate about the genre and each obviously reveled in the opportunity to make an outdoor melodrama that tackles big issues about right and wrong, a common Western theme, while still exploring smaller truths inherent in human behavior. Cinematography and production design, appropriate music and liberal doses of witty dialogue also add greatly to the experience.
And it helps that both filmmakers deliver terrific performances themselves — but it really helps that they both also managed to rope in co-stars who not only add to their films but also elevate them. “Appaloosa” co-stars Viggo Mortensen and “Open Range” co-stars Robert Duvall. Both play longtime trail pals and both deliver deceptively low-key performances that stick with you.
Of course, Duvall is great in everything he does, and he seems especially at home in a saddle. His big-screen Westerns include “Geronimo: An American Legend” (1993, PG-13), Clint Eastwood’s “Joe Kidd” (1972, PG), “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” (1972, PG), “Lawman” (1971, R) and he was the villain going up against John Wayne in the original “True Grit” (1969).
But Duvall’s best Western — one of the greatest Westerns ever made — is a miniseries he did for television, “Lonesome Dove” (1989), co-starring Tommy Lee Jones and a truly amazing cast. (Duvall’s 2006 cable miniseries “Broken Trail” is also quite good.)
A Western can still be relevant without tossing tradition out the window.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parents Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com