Updating olden-day heroes is a difficult task. Like Superman, the Lone Ranger's mythos is rooted in an outmoded American ideal, one where unquestionable good always triumphs over evil, damsels are in constant distress, and putting a small scrap of cloth over your eyes serves as a perfect disguise.
But these are more cynical times. Is it possible to update such a paragon of righteousness as the Lone Ranger, who shot through the Old West as a symbol of American morality?
Eighty years after the hero first ambled into the American imagination, director Gore Verbinski's mega-budget blockbuster can't seem to muster any freshness, despite his miracle work in transforming Pirates of the Caribbean from a theme-park ride to a benchmark in blockbuster entertainment (though let's say nothing about the horrid sequels). Here, the Lone Ranger still seems old-fashioned, but all the director really does to alter the character is make him something of a prick.
That prick is played with minimal charisma by rising star Armie Hammer (the Winklevoss twins of The Social Network), who spends most of the movie stumbling around and treating his reluctant partner, Tonto (Johnny Depp, again subbing a weird hat for nuance), like dogshit. The pair is in cahoots to hunt down a murderous bandit (William Fichtner, reliably evil) while a tycoon (Tom Wilkinson) lays the literal tracks for Western expansion.
The film follows the milquetoast hero and his caricature of a sidekick as they bound between train chases, fistfights and brothels, all unnecessarily framed by scenes of an elderly Depp telling his tale to a kid at a carnival. Despite inspired action sequences—such as a bookending set of roller-coaster locomotive chases that hurdle through the countryside with cartoonish glee—Verbinski somehow makes the film simultaneously chaotic and dull.
Then there's the matter of the violence, which is amped up to a discomforting level. The Lone Ranger is considered a family film, an opportunity to transfer a heroic property from one generation to the next. Yet the film manages a bloodthirstiness generally reserved for much darker fare. Fichtner's villainous bronco has a thing for cutting out and biting human hearts. Bodies are shredded, women are under constant threat of rape, and one particularly jarring sequence features the onscreen massacre of hundreds of Comanche. Most of it, moreover, is played for giggles.
Of course, The Lone Ranger isn't alone in its love of wholesale death for fun (looking at you, Indiana Jones). But there's a certain mean-spiritedness that pervades the film, weighing down what is being sold as a lighthearted romp. Yes, our hero still operates by a firm moral compass and holds to a firm anti-gun policy (that goes out the door when convenient), but the world he inhabits is one of almost absurd violence. That's fitting for the Old West setting, to be sure, and certainly for a more cynical multiplex. Say what you will about antiquated values: The new Lone Ranger could benefit from being a little more old-fashioned—and its titular character could stand to be a lot less of a sniveling prick.
Critic's Grade: C-
SEE IT: The Lone Ranger is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at 99W Drive-In, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Hilltop, Lloyd Mall, Movies on TV, St. Johns Twin, Sandy, Sherwood, Wilsonville, Cornelius, Mill Plain.