Chaos Trains, by Scott Nye
After completely exploding the tropes of narrative, action cinema, performance styles, and just plain common sense in two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and Rango, I suppose madman director Gore Verbinski had to come down off his high at some point. The Lone Ranger is only intermittently bad in the sense of causing active offense to a paying audience, but commits the often far-greater sin of just being kind of dull. Every now and again, something truly wild will take hold (cannibalistic rabbits, a horse standing in a tree, train tracks buried in the desert); more often, it’s content with a sort of placid eccentricity (“outrageous” make-up and costumes, a gun hidden in a fake leg, Johnny Depp doing his Johnny Depp thing). Mostly, it’s just not a whole lot of fun, until, that is, the finale kicks into high gear, and my God, if you think fifteen or so minutes can save a movie whole cloth, then buddy, The Lone Ranger is for you. Just know you have around two hours to get there.
Structured around an ill-conceived, but spiritedly-executed framing device wherein an elderly Tonto (Depp) regales a young boy with tales of his adventures with a masked man known as The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer). The framing device gives Verbinski and his screenwriters (Revolutionary Road adapter Justin Haythe joins Pirates veterans Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) a license upon which they do not capitalize – which is basically to do whatever the hell they want – choosing instead to tell a you-guessed-it origin story, meaning we’re saddled with a whole hell of a lot of some guy doubting his desire/ability/general comfort with being a hero before wouldn’t-you-know-it throwing on that damn mask and riding the hell out of that horse.
Though these are terribly familiar traits (whoa, you mean, this guy has a family member in whose shadow he feels trapped? Shut the front door), some nice color is added wherein our hero thinks the whole mask thing is kind of silly to begin with, preferring to exact justice through the courts in which he received his schooling. Hammer is an inspired choice for the role, presenting a completely square exterior with just a hint of corruptibility, and when he finally has to become an almost-comically-heroic entity, he embodies it with rare precision and earnest. More importantly, he centers Depp’s attempts to demolish the entire film at every turn. Depp’s irrepressible weirdness is sometimes suited to a given scene, but almost by accident. He’s unhinged in a way bereft of entertainment, moving far more into the realm of uncomfortable curiosity. The building relationship between the Ranger and Tonto is supposed to be the soul of the film, but Depp has buried Tonto’s too deep to ever be relevant. Mostly, we’re left to hope they can get along long enough to give us one great sequence.
On the plus side, however, that good stuff is truly extraordinary. The finale starts with a bang, a gigantic trumpeting of the William Tell overture, and sets off into a fantastic Rube Goldberg series of events involving two trains, $65 million in silver rocks, two bad guys, a damsel in distress, her son, our hero, his sidekick and horse, tons of guns, a well-timed ladder escape, and a great deal of high explosives. The manner and extent to which these items collide – or just barely not collide – is an evergreen joy, and the shot from the trailer that got me most excited, of The Lone Ranger riding his horse through a moving train, is indeed but a taste of the delights in store. I may be in the minority in admiring the hell out of Verbinski’s achievements with the second two Pirates films, but you have to admit, he was never short on imagination when it came to his action sequences, and after teasing that quality throughout the length of The Lone Ranger, it finally comes to fruition in the finale. Had the whole film been this spirited, this electric, or even had an ounce of this level of enthusiasm, it would easily be among the finest films of the year.
As it is, much of the time it’s tough to really tell what tone they’re trying to strike, which is very different than successfully striking several tones at once. Some scenes are delightfully goofy, many others are aiming for a tight-wound tension, still more for a kind of elegiac vision of the West, while others, given a little more leeway, might have been on their way to Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. Verbinski never quite finds the cohesion between all these dueling forces, but I still very much appreciated the small victories along the way, particularly in twisting normally assumed allegiances. We come to root for the indians over the cowboys, the outlaws over the representatives of law and order, and the prostitutes over the Presbyterians. It may not be a wholly successful film – neither totally unhinged nor totally grounded – but its undercurrent of genuine oddity, every now and again, manages to pour through the opacity of mundanity.