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Call it Pirates of the Wild West; just don't call it a good movie

When it came to making a lasting contribution to the western genre, Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski should have stayed satisfied with the surreal cartoon Rango.

The star and director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies deliver The Lone Ranger as a sprawling, revisionist, 21/2-hour mess of (more or less) live action, with none of the elegance and subtlety of their one-off 2011 'toon.

Armie Hammer, left, and Johnny Depp update the hero-sidekick dynamic of The Lone Ranger to little avail.


Armie Hammer, left, and Johnny Depp update the hero-sidekick dynamic of The Lone Ranger to little avail.

It's safe to say they clearly set out to do for the western genre what they previously did for the pirate movie. And why not? That franchise made millions upon millions of dollars, preferring gross spectacle and elaborate action over the niceties of narrative coherence.

So... here we go again.

A framing device places the elderly Comanche warrior Tonto (Depp, in extraordinary old-age makeup) at a carnival, where he proceeds to tell his life story to a lad sporting cap pistols and a mask.

Cut to some decades earlier where Tonto is rudely interrupted in his mission of vengeance against demonic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Cavendish's goodie-two-shoes saviour is newly minted lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer), an earnest dolt intent on imposing by-the-book righteousness on the Wild West. When Butch escapes, John joins his Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale) in a pursuing posse. That doesn't go well. Suffering a betrayal, Dan is killed and John is left for dead, only to be discovered by Tonto, who essentially resurrects the fallen Reid in the guise of the Lone Ranger, a masked avenger.

Written by Pirates scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, along with Justin Haythe, the movie strives mightily to elevate the character of Tonto from the sidekick status of the original radio serial/TV show. The movie could rightly be titled Tonto and the Lone Ranger in Order of Importance.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Tonto, a solitary outcast from his Comanche tribe owing to a youthful mistake he made, is an inherently more interesting character than the fusty do-gooder Reid (Hammer offers up a flat good-guy parody akin to his Prince Charming in Mirror, Mirror). Depp plays him with a uncharacteristically bizarre appearance, with black-and-white-striped face makeup and a dead crow perched precariously on his head. Message received: Tonto is to the traditional "Hollywood Indian" as Capt. Jack Sparrow was to the traditional movie pirate.

It's a calculated effort to add more depth to the implacable stoic companion portrayed by Jay Silverheels in the old TV series, while giving Depp some moral high ground to offset the fact that a white guy is playing one of the most recognized First Nations characters in western culture.

It's not enough, especially since Verbinski cannot balance historic accuracy with his penchant for the gratuitously bizarre, which also includes cannibalistic bunnies and Helena Bonham Carter as a flame-haired madame with a gun secreted in her artificial leg.

Whatever points the production gets for its sympathetic portrayal of First Nations issues pretty much gets blown away in a sequence where a massacre of Comanche warriors is crosscut with a comic escape by our heroes.

It's appalling. But not as appalling as the fact that this ham-fisted reimagining will likely make reams of money.

Other voices

A bloated, incoherent would-be epic that stumbles like a horse that stepped in too many plot holes and came up lame.

-- Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune


How/why/wherefore did it turn out this way? The evidence suggests a combination of hubris, errant revisionism, a misguided and perverse degree of violence, and a script that never worked in the first place.

-- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune


Funny stuff good, violence, preachy historical revisionism bad.

-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service


Like watching an elephant tap dance in your living room: Everything gets trampled and the dancing's not very good.

-- Ty Burr, Boston Globe


One hot mess -- an entertaining one, to be sure, but still a mess.

-- Charlie McCollum, San Jose Mercury News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2013 C3


Updated on Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 8:58 AM CDT: adds fact box

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