A scene early in Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger encapsulates everything that's right and wrong about his take on the masked lawman. In a railcar packed with hymn-singing settlers, there sits a besuited prosecutor, John Reid, reading John Locke's Two Treatises of Government.
Locke's argument, that civil society exists to protect individual property rather than serve some notion of the common good, forms the thematic backbone of The Lone Ranger. Reid rebels against its application in the West, justifying Big Rail's incursion into the territories, including land previously granted to Native Americans.
Not coincidentally, it was also the conflict in Verbinski's two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, in which the Royal Navy is essentially the enforcement arm for the East India Trading Company. In The Lone Ranger, the players are the United States frontier military, Big Railroad and their scruffy antagonists: Armie Hammer's Reid and Johnny Depp's Johnny Depp, er, Tonto.
However, that theme is intriguingly introduced only to fall inert in service to a lumbering storyline, questionable characterizations and Verbinski's typically impressive but helter-skelter visuals.
When the daft but sly Tonto rescues a still-surviving Reid from a massacre perpetrated by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and his gang, the Native declares him a "spirit walker" who can't be killed. Tonto and his new "kemo sabe" ride off to seek vengeance, each equipped with particular motives. Combating their cultural differences, the duo eventually clash with evil rail baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson).
Beyond Verbinski's own oeuvre (including the Western-set Rango, also featuring Depp), the director lifts much from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, which also involved a railroad magnate in league with hired guns. But Verbinski eschews Leone's cynicism; although he apes, shot-for-shot, the family slaughter near the beginning of Once Upon a Time, his payoff is far less wrenching.
It takes until the final half-hour of its 149-minute running time for the Lone Ranger to finally flash his gallant persona (and his inevitable theme, "William Tell Overture"). The film's unquestioned highlight is a tremendous runaway train sequence, but in order to get there, you have to slog through Hammer's wrongheaded simpleton shtick and the infernal dead-crow cowl that Depp wears.
The film employs a framing device that involves an elderly Tonto, posing as "The Noble Savage" in an Old West exhibit, describing his youthful exploits to a young masked visitor. However, this structure accomplishes little beyond showing off Depp's old-man makeup. (The only thing more useless than this device is Helena Bonham Carter's hooker with a heart of gold.) The Lone Ranger is supposed to be about the title character, but by film's end it's unclear whether the Lone Ranger is a burgeoning superhero, closeted iconoclast, avenging angel, lingering idealist or aspiring family man.
Who was that masked man, anyway? I'm still waiting to find out.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lonesome westerners."