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'The Lone Ranger': Summer Fun With Manifest Destiny

By NPR Staff | 07/03/2013

We're at the point when Johnny Depp's dumbest whims can lead to movies costing $200 million. I imagine Depp lying in a hammock on his private island and saying, "I've always wanted to play Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows!" and it's done. Then he says, "I've always wanted to do The Lone Ranger — but as Tonto!" and it, too, gets the green light.

Depp's movies open big in the U.S. and, more important, in international markets, which today account for close to 80 percent of Hollywood's profits. And they have the potential, in Hollywood-speak, to be highly "franchiseable" — like Depp's Pirates films, which have made billions.

I don't want to suggest that Depp himself is purely money-minded. His biggest role models are Hunter S. Thompson and Marlon Brando, both of whom portrayed their lives of pathological self-indulgence as subversive, countercultural hipsterism.

Depp worked with Brando in a not very good movie called Don Juan DeMarco, which inspired Depp to leap to the weird late-Brando mode of Method hamming without passing through the early Brando genius that remains the high point of film acting.

Depp has also followed the lead of Brando in making a cause of the maltreatment of Native Americans. So his Lone Ranger is conceived as a subversive epic: The onetime sidekick is now the true master and moral force. He's only a sidekick because in both 19th-century Texas, and 20th-century Hollywood where the Lone Ranger character originated, the hero had to be white.

In this movie, Tonto's people are victims of murderous colonialists — men who run railroads through their native lands and kill off resistance. And what's sold as a broad comedy that reunites Depp with his Pirates of the Caribbean director, Gore Verbinski, features massacres of Native American tribes. The movie is exhaustingly bad, but bad in ways you can't imagine in advance.

Armie Hammer plays the title role, first known as John Reid. At the start, he's a law-abiding attorney who journeys to Texas in 1869 to help his brother, a real ranger, prosecute such criminals as the Indian killer Butch Cavendish. Veteran actor William Fichtner plays Cavendish, who's so massively disfigured by a knife wound that his face is as twisted as his soul.

But there's something even creepier about Tom Wilkinson's railroad executive, who wants in the name of progress to run a railroad through Comanche land. For one thing, he dotes a little too much on the sheriff's wife, Rebecca, played by Ruth Wilson.

The core of the film, of course, is the banter between Reid and Tonto, whom Depp plays as a somewhat more dignified Captain Jack Sparrow — though there is that dead crow affixed to his head, which he constantly feeds. There's a lot of drawn-out Butch and Sundance banter amid the shooting and falling.

Depp isn't trying to play a true Native American. He acts more in the show-biz ethnic tradition of Brando's Japanese interpreter in the appalling Teahouse of the August Moon, and he sounds to me like a turn-of-the-last-century Yiddish actor doing Shakespeare.

The film is almost 2 1/2 hours long, and like most of Verbinski's pictures it has about six climaxes. Verbinski, like Depp, is a student of Buster Keaton, and his busy, high-velocity action sequences are often very witty, with Rube Goldberg-like successions of contraptions that send our heroes hurtling. But you see the visual punch lines coming seconds, even minutes in advance. Verbinski has no dash.

The bigger problem is that he mixes hijinks with sadism, seeming oddly desensitized to the horror of what he's showing. He uses carnage for kicks. In the 1970 film Little Big Man, Arthur Penn used a comic tall-tale tone to tell a story that built to the genocide of Native Americans. The mix didn't work — but it was true to the bleak, absurdist spirit of the '60s, which began with the novel Catch-22 and got even darker.

The Lone Ranger combines Depp's shallow, liberal seriousness with Pirates of the Caribbean slapstick spectacle, and the upshot is horrible. It's like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, adapted into a Disney theme park ride.
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