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Review: Tonto steal show from ‘The Lone Ranger’

Posted by on July 3, 2013 – 12:06 am

The Lone RangerIt has been eighty-years since The Lone Ranger was first created as a serial radio show in Michigan and it’s been over thirty-years since the western hero was last seen on the big screen. Does the masked man still pack the same punch that made him hugely popular in films, television, books, comics and cartoons from the previous century? Well, not really, but his faithful companions Tonto and Silver manage to make up for the hero’s shortcomings.

There was a time when cowboys ruled as America’s greatest heroes, and you can draw a direct line from many of today’s popular fictional justice-seekers straight back to the likes of western stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and, yes, The Lone Ranger. But while cowboys were once very popular on screen, it was often at the expense of Native American culture. The new Lone Ranger film attempts to cinematically right some of those wrongs by basically making the masked man’s former sidekick, Tonto (as played by Johnny Depp), the star of the show.

There are certainly some politics regarding Depp’s portrayal of Tonto, between the actor, the filmmakers and the Comanche tribe of which the fictional character is a member of, and I’m going to leave it up to them as to whether the film comes across as an honorable depiction of Native Americans or not. I can only say that for me Tonto is definitely the hero of this film and a character that I would feel proud to be associated with, but I’m admittedly not a stakeholder in that debate.

The new Lone Ranger is no doubt Tonto’s film, and it is told from his perspective in a flashback manner reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite westerns, Little Big Man. An aged and eccentric Tonto, working as a 1930’s carnival sideshow performer, recounts stories of his adventures with the Lone Ranger to a young boy who is dressed as the legendary western hero. I loved this storytelling aspect of the movie and make sure you stay through the credits for what I think is a charming finale for the old man.

The Lone RangerWith the action in the film being filtered through the eyes and memories of Tonto, as being told to a young white boy, many of the narrative’s exaggerations are forgivable, and the inept cartoonish way that the Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), is portrayed seems logical coming from a man who probably has more than a little resentment towards his former partner.

This side of the story may not sit well with Lone Ranger purists, and I have to admit that at first I was a little put off by the buffoonish portrayal of the titular hero, but upon reflection it all makes sense and to be honest I’d like to see this movie again with my head straight on the perspective.

This Lone Ranger story tells Tonto’s view of how attorney John Reid became a Texas Ranger, why he’s such a straight-laced straight-shooter, how he hooked up with Tonto and his faithful super-horse, Silver, and why he wears the mask and has a penchant for silver bullets. One of the movie’s faults, though, is that it’s a little long on the origin, with a running time of 149 minutes; but just when I was about to give up on any real Lone Ranger style action ever happening, the famous William Tell Overture kicked in and suddenly I was back in touch with my inner-cowboy-kid, giddy and mesmerized with a huge smile on my face as the heroes saved the day onboard a speeding train.

The Lone Ranger is directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) and it also stars William Fichtner as the villainous Butch Cavendish, Tom Wilkinson as a corrupt railroad tycoon, Helena Bonham Carter as a one-legged brothel Madam, and Barry Pepper as a Calvary officer who looks like General Custer. But as mentioned, the show-stealer is Depp with his portrayal of Tonto, whose character make-up is based on the “I Am Crow” painting by artist Kirby Sattler (who is not Native American.)

Some will complain that this “Tonto” is just another oddball Depp character a la Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but who cares? The actor once again does a fantastic job of immersing himself in a great part and I can’t imagine anyone else being able to pull it off with as much dignity and good humor. It’s a great role and he does a fantastic job with it.

The Lone RangerOne of The Lone Ranger’s biggest problems is that it tries to be everything for everybody. It has fun moments that will appeal to kids (of all ages), but it also has some graphic violence that is likely to be disturbing for younger children and their parents. There are also several lulls in the action that I’m certain will make young kids fidgety. I think the filmmakers probably could have shaved a good 20-30 minutes off of the running time and it would have been just fine.

Another issue is that some of the digital effects look slightly unfinished; especially a scene with a herd of buffalo that looks like it could have come from a 60’s cartoon rather than a modern big-budget film. Why this was left in the final cut, I have no idea.

While I’m complaining, I have to mention a western movie pet-peeve of mine in that the beautiful scenery in this film, which was obviously shot in Monument Valley of Arizona and Utah, is portrayed as being in Texas. This trick has been performed by countless directors, including the great John Ford, in countless western movies and it is a Texas-sized sham. How would it hurt to just set your fictional story where the actual scenery is located? As a native Arizonan, a film-nerd, and someone who has basic knowledge of North American geography, I’m offended.

If you’re inclined to do so, there’s plenty to find wrong with The Lone Ranger, but if you love old fashioned western films and can dig some popcorn and cornball heroics on a Saturday afternoon then there is a lot of fun to be had at this movie. And call me crazy, but if you like your western action-adventure tales to be a little bit more cerebral, then just approach this film from old man Tonto’s perspective (as it is intended); get inside his head and I believe you’ll find this movie to be a much more insightful and thought-provoking story than it appears to be on its surface. Grade: 7.5/10

Photos © 2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc.