Whoever decided the time was right to revive the Lone Ranger – a character that first saddled up on radio in 1933 and effectively rode off into the TV sunset in 1957 – would normally not be consulted for bright ideas again at any time in the near future. It's been a long while since westerns were a compelling cinematic genre, and young male moviegoers – the target action-fantasy audience – probably care as much about the famous masked man as they do about Hopalong Cassidy or Lash LaRue.
But since the motivating force behind the new Lone Ranger was Pirates of the Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and since his collaboraters were also Pirates mainstays – star Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio – the folks at Disney, the Pirates studio, must have envisioned the launch of a grand new multi-billion-dollar franchise. However, they also felt that way about last year's expensively disastrous Cowboys & Aliens, which is probably why they briefly halted production of The Lone Ranger in 2011, when its prospective budget started spiraling beyond $200-million.
As it turned out, this new picture reportedly wound up costing $250-million dollars anyway. It's not dreadful in the manner of Cowboys & Aliens – there are some terrific stunts and rousing action sequences, and the widescreen vistas shot in Arizona's Canyon de Chelly and John Ford's beloved Monument Valley are unimprovably majestic. But the story is clogged with unnecessary elements, and the movie's bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime is exhausting. Any hope that this film will quickly earn back its budget would seem overly rosy in the extreme.
The movie begins with – and frequently returns to – a framing device involving a little boy and an aged American Indian that is unusually annoying and could have been cut entirely. We are then transported to 1869 Texas, where construction of the first transcontinental railroad is heading for completion. The local Comanches are in the way, of course, and they're being framed for a series of murderous raids on white prairie settlements. Meanwhile, a group of duster-clad Texas Rangers is waiting grimly at a small railway station (hat tip: Sergio Leone) for the arrival of a train bringing the vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish (wonderfully vile William Fichtner) back to town to be hanged. Also on that train, we see, is John Reid (stalwart Armie Hammer), a local lad returning from an Eastern law school to bring justice to the Wild West. And Cavendish is chained up in a special car along with another prisoner – a Comanche called Tonto (Depp). (When someone asks what his crime was, he replies, "Indian.")
Script clutter begins accumulating. The head of the waiting Texas Rangers is Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), John's older brother. Dan's wife, Rebecca (English actress Ruth Wilson) was once John's girlfriend, and she still pines for him. A silky rail baron named Cole (Tom Wilkinson) has his eye on her, though, and he's not a man to be denied. Back in town, we meet Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter, under-utilized), a bordello owner whose prosthetic ivory leg shoots bullets out of its heel (hat tip: Robert Rodriguez). There's also a mysterious white horse hanging around, and a number of wildly colorful desert-rat outlaws (h/t: Sam Peckinpah) – members of Butch's gang, who assist him in escaping from the train in a long sequence that echoes the classic acrobatics of Buster Keaton. I won't go into the movie's odd cannibalism motif.
The gist of all this is that Tonto has been tracking Cavendish for years in order to inflict rough justice for a long-ago atrocity. Straight-arrow John Reid believes that justice should only be meted out in a court of law; before long, though, he sees the merit of strapping on a six-shooter and donning a little leather mask (said by Tonto to have spiritual significance) in order to deal with bad guys in the only way they deserve. A silver bullet also comes into play, and eventually the white horse gets a name.
Having the movie's biggest star play the titular hero's sidekick unbalances the story. To his credit, Depp, muting his usual eye-rolling irony, doesn't hog his many scenes with Hammer. And while his Tonto – with crusty white war paint spackled on his face and a dead crow perched on his head – is an unignorably comical conception, the actor tries hard to bring noble feeling to his role. (Depp has for some time contended that he has Indian blood trickling through his veins.)
Director Verbinski stages the rampaging action – on trains and horses, in teeming barrooms and vast desert wastes—with spectacular energy. But there's so much of it that after awhile – after, say, two hours – it becomes oppressively repetitive. And the attempted mixture of cowboy hijinks with intimations of anti-Indian genocide never gels. Should this movie have been headed off at the greenlight pass? Quite possibly. How bad a box-office ambush may now await it will soon be seen.