Review: 'Lone Ranger' rousing, but struggles with identity crisis

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Like the masked man Armie Hammer plays in the film, "The Lone Ranger" suffers from an identity crisis. Part "Rango" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" action and hi-jinks, part Peckinpah violence and lots of other stuff in between, this re-imagination of the radio-turned-TV Western icon by director Gore Verbinski is no doubt entertaining -- but it also clearly needed to be lassoed in for a tighter focus.

Unlike the classic radio show that began in 1933 or the TV show of the late 50s starring Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, Verbinski's version of "The Lone Ranger" quickly establishes at the beginning of the film that his tale will be told from the point-of-view of Tonto (Johnny Depp) -- whom we meet in 1933 as aged Cherokee warrior who passes his time as part of Wild West carnival exhibit. There he meets a young masked cowboy who reminds him of his old friend, Kemosabe, and recounts for the child the origins of the man called the Lone Ranger.

Hopping back to the 1860s, the story plays out as Tonto meets John Reid (Hammer), an ardent prosecutor who is committed to upholding the law. But after a deadly ambush with the ruthless Butch Cavendish that kills Reid's sheriff brother (James Badge Dale), the man of law begins to doubt his convictions and is transformed by Tonto into the legend of justice known as the Lone Ranger.

"The Lone Ranger" marks the fifth time Verbinski and Depp have worked together, following the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies and the Oscar-winning animated Western "Rango." Not surprisingly, the overall tone of "The Lone Ranger" feels like a little bit of both, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The identity crisis comes into play, however, when Verbinski tries to meld his big-budget action movie sensibilities with his Western influences.

One minute, there's a wild chase atop a barreling steam engine -- the construction of the railroad in the Old West is central to the film's plot -- and the next, the good guys are getting massacred in a violent shootout, a la the films of famed Western director Sam Peckinpah. True, the film is PG-13, but it's a fine line for Walt Disney Studios to walk, especially since the film is being marketed to kids. The "Pirates" movies were also PG-13, but the tone of those films were considerably lighter and dealt much more in fantasy.

See my review of the film on "KARE 11 News at 11" with Diana Pierce below.

As Depp proved with "Pirates," he can instantly transform into a character and in the case of Tonto, he commands your attention ever time he appears on screen. And while Tonto has his quirky traits and draws plenty of laughs, he treats the character with much more reverence than Captain Jack Sparrow, who most of the time stumbled around like a flamboyant (a la Keith Richards) and drunken buffoon.

While "The Lone Ranger" is clearly Depp's film, that's not to say Hammer doesn't make the most out of his title role. As the subject of the origins story, Hammer's Reid begins the film like a fish out of water, and eventually learns to run with the big dogs under Tonto's tutelage. He's definitely likeable and has presence in the role, but clearly he's not the focus of the film even though Depp does his best to let him share the scenery. This "Lone Ranger" story isn't about the Ranger and his sidekick like the TV show, but about the two men being equals in their quest for justice.

The supporting characters are all solid, especially the barely recognizable Fichtner as the lowlife Cavendish. Although she's billed as one of the film's leads, Helena Bonham Carter turns up in only a few scenes -- albeit memorable ones -- as an Old West madam who has prosthetic leg that encases a gun, a weapon she adapted to after a horrible encounter with Cavendish. Newcomer Ruth Wilson has a much bigger role and ably fits the bill as Rebecca Reid, the widow of John Reid's brother.

Interview: 'The Lone Ranger' star Armie Hammer

Interview: 'The Lone Ranger' star Helena Bonham Carter

While "The Lone Ranger" no doubt has its flaws, it has far too many great things going for it that can't be ignored. The Old West scenery -- the film was shot in New Mexico and Utah -- is absolutely breathtaking, and the Verbiniski gets into every grimy detail when it comes to the look of Cavendish and his band of outlaws. The director, along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, also do their best to keep the visual effects as real as possible, and they definitely dazzle with the film's spectacular runaway train scenes.

Verbinski appears to have weathered some potential controversy, too, as he recognizes and treats with respect the plight of the Cherokee Indians in the film, whose way of life is threatened by over-zealous railroad visionary (Tom Wilkinson).

After three turns at the helm of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that "The Lone Ranger" is a long film, clocking in at two and a half hours. While somewhat bloated, the film doesn't feel nearly as laborious as the later "Pirates" films, probably because "The Lone Ranger" doesn't feel like something we've already seen three times before.

"The Lone Ranger," rated PG-13, 2 1/2 stars out of four.

See the trailer for "The Lone Ranger" below.

What other local critics are saying ..

Chris Hewitt says in his 2 star review for the Pioneer Press that the film has "some of the playful silliness of 'Rango' but the Verbinski/Depp collaborations it more closely resembles are the worst 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies."

Colin Covert of the Star Tribune also gives the film 2 stars, saying he "was swept along for the first hour, drinking in the dusty, sun-blasted Sergio Leone production design, the operatic landscapes and thundering locomotive crack-ups" until "plot overload began to choke the life out of the piece."

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he also reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11.” As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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