ON THE SILVER SCREEN: HIGH FIVE, SILVER! AWAY! (THE LONE RANGER)

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By Brian Lafferty

July 3, 2013 (San Diego) – When I first learned of The Lone Ranger’s budget, I asked myself, “What studio in their right mind would spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a movie based on a property that originated as a long-running radio show, and later a low-budget 1950s kids TV show?”  In the 1930s and 1940s, Monogram Pictures and Republic Pictures rolled out hundreds of low-budget B-movies, a significant chunk of them westerns.  A cursory glance through the Internet Movie Database and a little arithmetic tells me The Lone Ranger cost a ton more than all these companies’ movies put together.

Now I see why.

The Lone Ranger is a feature-length anecdote told by the elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp) to a young boy.  He remembers when he first met John Reid (Armie Hammer, who previously played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), whose brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is killed in cold blood by the vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who is linked to a shady businessman named Cole (Tom Wilkinson).  Reid becomes the masked avenger The Lone Ranger, and seeks revenge against Cavendish while uncovering a nefarious plot by the unscrupulous Cole.

The moment the story flashed back, I felt a sensation I rarely feel when watching modern Hollywood blockbusters.  I couldn’t identify it at the time.  It was a day or more later that it came to me.  It also perhaps explained why director Gore Verbinski asked for such a mammoth budget from Disney.

Having been to film school, and learning much about the technical aspects of moviemaking, one might think I can quickly spot the difference between location shooting and green-screen.  Considering how much moviemaking technology has improved with each passing year, that assumption would be incorrect.  I can barely tell the difference except in extreme cases when it’s used for a specific aesthetic and dramatic purpose, as in Robert Rodriguez’s and Frank Miller’s Sin City

This time, I could, although I didn’t realize it until I recalled such westerns as John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Ford’s The Searchers, and Henry Hathaway’s Nevada Smith.  Those directors employed location shooting to its fullest potential.  The genuineness showed, and its effects positively impacted these films’ every facet.  For example, the blistering, scorching heat emanating from the sun certainly inflamed the tension between Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt in Sierra Madre.

It all added up once I learned Verbinski shot mostly on location.  The panoramic extreme wide shots of the Texas desert are spectacular…and thirst-inducing.  The baking desert heat enhances the conflict between Reid and Tonto.  The action sequences are as stunning as they are real.  There are a lot of amazing things a green screen can generate.  But it cannot manufacture authenticity.

Scattered about the long film – it runs two and a half hours, even though it feels an hour shorter – are some of the year’s finest action.  I don’t want to hear about it being old-fashioned horse chases, shoot-outs, train robberies and hijackings, and the like.  Creativity is always a plus, but if a director can find ways to enliven go-to, genre-staple action tropes, that’s just as perfectly all right.

The train sequences are thrilling because they have a strong sense of urgency and believability.  Editors James Haygood and Craig Wood cut with a remarkably smooth and steady rhythm to propel the sequences with progressive intensity.  A certain uncertainty marks the gunplay, as in the scene where Reid’s brother and his posse are gunned down one by one by unseen shooters with the eye and accuracy of a devious professional sniper.

The action sequences surprisingly don’t dominate The Lone Ranger.  Much character development between the Lone Ranger and Tonto transpires betwixt the battles, fights, and shootings, thus becoming the film’s primary driving force.  It is a funny alliance.  Depp, under heavy makeup, elicits the most laughs.  His often-confused facial expressions can’t help but cause chuckling.  The banter between the two is silly some of the time, laugh out loud in other spots, but I couldn’t help but smile throughout.

Except when it got dark.  While Disney has had its fair share of grimness and darkness (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Dragonslayer), I wouldn’t take little kids to see The Lone Ranger.  I’m surprised the kids in the theater didn’t get upset when Cavendish cut out the dying Dan Reid’s heart and feasted on it, an action seen – albeit – barely, through the reflection in his brother’s glazed eye.  Men get shot and killed in cold blood, a few of them done for cheap effect.  This is not like Pirates of the Caribbean (also directed by Verbinski) where everything is in good humor and fun.  I found it exceedingly violent for a Disney film.

I don’t disapprove of it.  I’m only cautioning parents.  If poor word of mouth gets out and discourages parents from bringing their kids, it may come back to bit Disney in the derriere, financially speaking.  This movie is one of a number of massively expensive blockbusters that studios have packed in this summer.  This is one I hope won’t bomb because Hollywood needs to make more authentic movies like this one.  Sure you may say, “It doesn’t matter to me.  I just want to be entertained and have a good time.  What’s the harm?”

The harm is that if this movie fizzles at the box office, it means most movies will be manufactured via computer, the entertainment value will be consequently diminished, and the movies will leave audiences feeling less fully entertained and more hollow.  If you were to tell me you just want to be “entertained,” I’d tell you to take a look at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Magnificent Seven, Stagecoach (1939), and the movies I previously mentioned.  Those films offer not just high entertainment value, but a well-rounded unforgettable experience.  The Lone Ranger isn’t anywhere even remotely near those films’ level, but it is a fully entertaining return to a once-dominant, now semi-dormant genre.

B+

The Lone Ranger is now playing in wide release.

A Walt Disney Motion Pictures release.  Director:  Gore Verbinski.  Screenplay:  Justine Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio.  Original Music:  Hans Zimmer.  Cinematography:  Bojan Bazelli.  Cast:  Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, and James Badge Dale.  Runtime:  149 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.