About midway through The Lone Ranger, a bombastic western from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, there is a slapstick bit that perfectly encapsulates the entire film with that brand of sly irony that is just too spot on to be intentional. The scene in question finds John Reid (Armie Hammer), the titular masked vigilante, and his kooky Native American sidekick, Tonto (Johnny Depp), captured by a Comanche tribe and buried up to their necks with no possible escape. As they comically wrangle back and forth about how best to save themselves from their latest predicament, the scene becomes a striking metaphor for how The Lone Ranger ultimately plays out: buried up to its neck in an extravagant mess of unimaginative western archetypes, repressed action sequences, and harsh tonal shifts that are enough to give you whiplash.

Your standard origin story (that clocks in at an exhausting two and a half hours), The Lone Ranger begins with Reid, a squeaky-clean law school graduate, returning to his dusty tumbleweed of a hometown in 1864 to use law books and a thirst for due process to dole out justice in a three-piece suit. But the savagery of the West doesn’t take well to being civilized, and while on patrol with his Texas Ranger older brother (James Badge Dale) and half a dozen other Rangers, the group is ambushed and left for dead by a band of criminals led by the gnarly Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). The only survivor, Reid is rescued by the wayward Tonto and a high-spirited horse named Silver, and awakens ready to “ride for justice” and hunt down Cavendish. Throw in a greedy railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson), a damsel in frequent distress (Ruth Wilson) and a local brothel madam with a false leg that doubles as a shotgun (Helena Bonham Carter), and you have the perfect, yet rudimentary concoction for every western ever made. Even Carter, who is best known occupying more bizarre and colorful roles in the Harry Potter franchise and Alice in Wonderland, seems to simply be sliding into the shoes many have worn before her.

Inspired by the popular radio/TV series that began way back in the 1930s, The Lone Ranger is essentially Verbinski’s desperate attempt to make the Old West feel new again, but instead, he fails to make his own story, let alone its western setting, feel refreshing or original. He overloads every second with plot that would assume to foster some sense of urgency — an escalating Indian war, the rapid introduction of the railroad through the West, Reid’s revenge plot, his relationship with his brother’s widow, etc. — but it all ends up falling flat and just colliding into a mangled heap.

Around the time of Reid’s rescue, the film’s two leads come into focus — and Verbinski’s blatant dependence on Depp becomes apparent. In the original series, Tonto played second fiddle to the masked Lone Ranger, acting in a clearly defined sidekick role. Here, Verbinski knows the value of the Depp name and beefs up the role accordingly. Hidden under his own mask of cracked black-and-white face paint and constantly feeding the dead sparrow he wears as a headdress, Depp delivers his customary brand of zaniness in a performance that many will see as no more than Jack Sparrow in the Wild West. Spouting inspirational idioms and blank glances that speak volumes, Depp is wacky and entertaining enough to make Tonto a necessary distraction from the film’s more immediate shortcomings. But while there is no denying that Depp is an unparalleled character actor, even he and his character’s expanded backstory can’t save Tonto’s appeal from wearing thin as the story and his antics drag on.

Fighting to maintain the lead role in his own story, Hammer has the handsome features and gusto needed to fill the Lone Ranger’s signature 10-gallon white hat. But this isn’t your grandfather’s Lone Ranger. Here, Reid is portrayed as a wimpy, whiny and buttoned-up man who struggles to fill the heroic spurs before him. For a man with vengeance on the brain, he remains oddly steadfast in his no-guns, no-violence values. Having ideals in the West is admirable, but when they prevent the hero from truly getting down and dirty in his own revenge plot, he becomes a bland martyr trapped in a hail of bullets and towering action. Hammer is a good actor, but donning this mask won’t be his ticket to fame.

Speaking of resolute values, The Lone Ranger, produced under the Disney moniker, would seem to have its roots placed firmly in family-friendly territory but that is not the case. The film is peppered with extreme gratuitous violence that includes, but is hardly limited to, Cavendish carving out the elder Reid brother’s heart and taking a bite, and an American cavalry mowing down an entire Indian tribe at gunpoint. What’s more, the disturbing violent streaks are bookended by light-hearted comedy, like Silver the horse standing in a tree wearing a hat or Tonto carrying on a conversation with the stallion. It’s as if Verbinski tried to gloss over the troubling aspects with laughs, making for an odd mix of horrifying and humorous. Even with its deceivingly accessible PG-13 rating, kids and parents beware: The Lone Ranger is not for the squeamish of heart.

The action (an undeniable indicator of quality in the summer movie season) is set on an eloquently grand scale, but is ultimately stunted by Verbinski’s inability to break free of the symbol of change that swept across the nation during this time: the railroad. For some reason, almost every semblance of major action takes place on, in or somewhere near a train. Sure, the film’s story revolves around the railroad’s entrance into the western way of life and, as kids from any decade will probably tell you, trains are fast and cool! But when there is a vast frontier setting begging to be frolicked in, Verbinski limits himself and his cast to repeatedly scaling the closet steam engine — making the audience long to explore the beautiful, spacious scenery that is zooming past the train window.

Oddly enough, the film’s one true achievement is a breathtaking 20-minute climatic race against time aboard not one, but two trains. Maybe it works because there are two, who knows? Pumped with the stirring “William Tell Overture” theme song that was made iconic by the original Lone Ranger series, the action sequence is infused with an undeniable, and almost patriotic, aura of genuine overdue excitement. It features thrilling shots of the heroes jumping from train to train and fighting their foes fist to fist — all shot by Verbinski with the kind of expert precision that made the first Pirates of the Caribbean so memorable. Sadly, this edge-of-your-seat spectacle comes over two hours into the film. After two hours, the saddle sores from Reid and Tonto’s journey have already set in and you’re begging for a draw with whomever they are fighting now. Thus proving that burying your best scenes at the end of the movie isn’t a smart move that leaves the audience wanting more, especially when they didn’t get enough in the first place. Instead, it’s lazy filmmaking that stamps the sense of missed opportunity in their minds as the credits roll.

It is show-stopping moments like this that audiences (and Disney, who funneled over $200 million to the film) hoped would fuel The Lone Ranger’s attempt to make the western cool again. But in that Old West fashion, both parties are instead robbed of a fulfilling experience and, of course, their money. Verbinski no doubt intended to coast on the fanfare of his and Depp’s Pirates legacy, hoping the stars (and the audience) would align once more. Unfortunately, with disturbing tone shifts and widespread deficiencies, a mask isn’t enough to hide that The Lone Ranger is, quite literally, a cinematic train wreck.

Rating: 1 out of 4 stars

“The Lone Ranger” opened nationwide on July 3, 2013.

Trailer Courtesy of: Disney.

Featured image: L to R: Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger in “The Lone Ranger.” Photo Credit: Peter Mountain. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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