Who is Gore Verbinski? The question has become like a Zen koan at this point, as the director’s perplexing adventures in Hollywood have wended through the action/rom-com of The Mexican, a remake of the J-horror staple The Ring, the eclectic animated Western Rango, and three increasingly joyless Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. (He likes Johnny Depp. That, we know.) But perhaps his first feature, the innocuous slapstick comedy MouseHunt, is the most revealing for its cascading series of Rube Goldberg setpieces. Like a next-gen Robert Zemeckis, Verbinski is a builder of contraptions, a movie-crazy architect of Hollywood entertainments that hum and clank in pleasing syncopation, but look storyboarded within an inch of their lives. The machines got bigger and noisier with each new entry in the Pirates franchise, and even though Verbinski kept them whirring along sequence by sequence, they started to resemble something that would swallow a small child in the Industrial Age.
The Lone Ranger reunites Verbinski with the Pirates team of Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and offers him a chance to slough off the series’ amusement-park mythology and return to his old fleetness. After all, how heavy could the dusting-off of an old Western favorite be?
The first indication is right there in the two-and-a-half-hour run time. Beyond an intricate code of honor, there was never much to the Lone Ranger in all his permutations, just his sidekick Tonto, “Hi-yo, Silver, away!,” the William Tell Overture, and various serialized adventures. The Lone Ranger may not make much sense in 2013—particularly with Depp as Tonto, though Depp claims some Native American ancestry—but there’s no reason such a durable set of characters and tropes couldn’t ride again. Verbinski and Bruckheimer just aren’t the types to do the necessary streamlining.
The loginess commences with a framing device that finds Depp’s elderly Tonto as “The Noble Savage” in a circus-tent exhibit in 1930s San Francisco, relaying the story of his life to a little boy who fancies himself a masked bandit. Flash back to 1869, when John Reid (Armie Hammer), a clean-living ex-Texas Ranger with a deep devotion to the law, faces circumstances that turn him into a masked vigilante. As he sets himself up in a town prepping itself for a new railroad and all the prosperity that comes with it, John has to contend with the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who’s been freed from custody and reunited with his gang. After the Cavendish gang slaughters all the other rangers but John—hence the “lone” part—he finds an unlikely partner in Tonto, a Native American with similar reason to seek revenge against the deranged killer. Except John, determined to apprehend Cavendish and bring him to justice, is reluctant to fire his gun.
There are serious miscalculations throughout The Lone Ranger, starting with the casting: Hammer plays the masked hero with the dim enthusiasm (or enthusiastic dimness) of Brendan Fraser at his most stilted; Depp’s Tonto is an ethnically dubious repurposing of his popular Jack Sparrow character, more stoic but equally eccentric; and Helena Bonham Carter, as a brothel madam with a lethal fake leg, does little but add to the cartoon grotesquerie. Verbinski litters the film with references to old TV Western serials, John Ford’s Monument Valley, and especially Once Upon A Time In The West, which it quotes both in the score and in a subplot about the railroads bringing order to the Wild West. But nods to the classics serve mostly to underline how little this film abides by their tone and traditions.
Verbinski orchestrates complex action sequences, including two spectacular bits of derring-do on a moving train, with a precision few in Hollywood are capable of pulling off. Yet The Lone Ranger, like his last two Pirates movies, seems conceived to deliver spectacle by the bulk, which means carrying the baggage of multiple subplots for the purpose of multiple climactic sequences. The Lone Ranger began as a frivolous radio adventure serial for boys in the 1930s, and the idea of adapting it for the present does not make it any less frivolous. The more elements Verbinski and company add, the more fun gets taken away.