Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Lone Ranger ~ Wrong Brother? Or Right Movie

The Lone Ranger ~ Armie Hammer & Johnny Depp | A Constantly Racing Mind
Before we get our underwear all in a bunch, let's start at the beginning.  The legend of the Lone Ranger began in the imagination of two guys in the Midwest.  In last days of January on a Detroit radio show in 1933, the story of the masked crusader and his Native American partner was an idealized version of an old west that never was.  “The Lone Ranger” radio show aired on WXYZ in the days when radio was king.  Many actors have played the part of both the ranger himself, and his partner, Tonto.  In some sense, this is another in a long line of buddy-cop stories that we have come to both love and or hate.  In Disney's new film about the lone Texas Ranger, and Tonto, we see some familiar old western film stereo types played out once again on the big screen.  Johnny Depp playing the iconic Native American has some folks a bit uptight.  Armie Hammer ("The Social Network,” "J. Edgar") plays the famed lawman.  Directed by Gore Verbinski, and produced by TV and movie mogul, Jerry Bruckheimer, Disney brings action, comedy, and renewed sense of justice to the dying Western genre.  “The Lone Ranger” is rated PG-13 and runs two hours and twenty-nine minutes.

Our story begins, not at the beginning, but at the end, kind of.  In the mid-1930s, a young boy is wandering around a carnival wearing a Lone Ranger outfit.  Eating a bag of peanuts, he finds himself in the Wild West exhibit.  Pictures of the Southwest, a stuffed American Bison in the foreground, the boy is not impressed.  Dime store Westerns were big around this time.  What does catch the boy’s eye is a figure of a Native American in his natural habitat.  Stereotypical of displays of the time, the engraved title is "The Noble Savage.”  Growing up in the late 60s and the 1970s, I watched "The Lone Ranger" on television, reruns of course.  At no time growing up and watching the series did I ever think of Tonto as a noble savage or a savage of any sort.  In my mind, Tonto was his friend and partner.  I grew up on the West Coast, and perhaps the social implications didn't hit me.  As far as I knew, Tonto was the Lone Ranger's equal.  The very old, wrinkled, wooden Indian comes to life scaring the boy. The old Indian mistakes the boy for his Kemo Sabe.

At this point the audience is aware that  the narrator telling this story by an extremely aged Tonto, that his memory may not be all there, and the tale we are about to hear, may not be entirely reliable.  But hey, this is Disney, the land of the Magic Castle.  The story slips into the AMC's television series "Hell On Wheels" in atmosphere and tone.  The time is the late 1860s, the civil war is over, and the expansion west is in full force.  The First Transcontinental Railroad is underway and moving deep into "Indian Territory.”  Tom Wilkerson plays a Thomas Durant type of character named Cole as he announces the "good" that the railway will bring in united the East with the West.  The subtext of "what about the natives" and the fact that history shows that the railroad was done at the expense of the Native Americans and Chinese labor is not lost on Bruckheimer and Verbinsky.


The Lone Ranger ~ The Lone Ranger | A Constantly Racing Mind


As in the radio show, the origin of “The Lone Ranger” has to do with Tonto saving the younger brother of Texas Ranger Dan Reid.  James Badge Dale has been busy lately, from playing a soldier in "World War Z," to a bad guy in "Iron Man 3," and a cancer patient in last year's "Flight.”  Here he plays John's older brother and seasoned Texas Ranger.  He's married to Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and has a young son, Dan (Bryant Prince).

However, before we get to the fateful ambush, there is a cursory introduction to Armie Hammer as Dan's brother John.  He is the county's new District Attorney and doesn't believe in guns.  He is arriving on a train riding in the train car with a group of Presbyterian churchgoing folks.  In a rear car, is the dastardly villain, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), in chains, and on his way to his hanging.  Next to him, we find our star, Depp, in a ridiculous white war paint and a dead crow on his headdress.  There would be no movie without Butch Cavendish, and keeping with a sacred rule that the original show creators held to was that adversaries are never other than American; this was to keep the radio sponsors happy and minority groups.  Of course, Cavendish's outlaw gang rescues him, leaving John Reid and Tonto chained together to figure out how to save the train before it hits the end of the line.  Fortunately, for all, big brother Dan is there to save the day.


The Lone Ranger ~ Johnny Depp | A Constantly Racing Mind


In saving the passengers on the train, we get an idea of what type of action that director Verbinsky has in store for us.  The scene that features an unreal train wreck and the fact that both John Reid and Tonto survive shows that screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio are not afraid to break the rule that "The Lone Ranger" never wins against hopeless odds.  Throughout the film, the writers have Reid and Tonto in ridiculous, but fun predicaments, and "magically" they escape.  Remember, that this is a Disney picture with magical horses.  We pause for a scene that sets up that John and Rebecca (Dan's wife) were once romantically involved when they were much younger.  Rebecca, played by Ruth Wilson reminds me of character Lily Bell from the aforementioned "Hell On Wheels.”  John accompanies his brother as he goes after the escaped Butch Cavendish, and his gang.  Along with them is a tracker by the name of Collins, played by Leon Rippy ("The Alamo,” "The Patriot").  Looking suspiciously like character actor Jack Elam, from the old westerns, he is supposedly a good friend to the Reid family; he leads them into an ambush. 

Between intercutting between the young kid at the carnival talking to the aged Tonto, we start to pull together a plot that puts Western tropes and the legend of the Lone Ranger back into place.  The mask, which Reid is not supposed to take off, Hammer's Reid, takes it off.  Never shooting to kill but to disarm his opponent is largely in place.  Espousing both Lock's philosophy on justice and Bentham's thoughts on Utilitarianism, that one must do what's best for the greatest number.  The names of most of Butch's gang have single names, keeping with carefully choosing the names of unsympathetic characters, and keeping them to a single name.  There is a scene in a saloon of ill repute (bordello) that supplies the railroad workers with drink and entertainment that is run by Helena Bonham Carter.  Depp, of course has worked with Carter many times before, as part of the recurring cast of actors that Tim Burton uses frequently.  Carter plays Red Harrington, she acts more of a distraction in helping the dynamic duo in getting out of trouble.


The Lone Ranger ~ The Iron Horse | A Constantly Racing Mind


In radio, television, and in the couple of films that Clayton Moore starred in, the character of "The Lone Ranger" was played seriously, and was meant to be taken seriously.  These were the days before the Vietnam War when the Western Film was about good and bad, black and white, and no gray in between.  We are long past those days now.  We live in a world of ever-increasing gray.  The difference between right and wrong is probably now more of a slippery slope than it ever was.  The real old west was never black and white.  The lawmen of the old west were usually known for the lawless shenanigans in other states or territories, and that didn't matter, as long as the cash flowed and the towns were peaceful.  In today's version of "The Lone Ranger," we have Tonto, who has more comical, but leading role.  We have a Lone Ranger character, which by all standards has the foundation of lawfulness, but is a bit naive, and needs a Tonto to guide him, no matter how insane Tonto seems.  Speaking of which, we get a very good back-story of Tonto, and what his motivation is all about.

Depp's Tonto speaks in halting, but complete sentences, tells Reid, the importance of not taking off his mask, that "Kemo Sabe means “wrong brother,” rather than” trusty scout.”  As silly as Tonto is with the Spirit Warrior talk and of the cannibalistic spirit windigo, he is an important part of the story.  I don't think I would trust the job, of bringing that type of lunacy, pulled together by logic, and held together by sheer charisma to any other actor.  Armie Hammer, on the other hand, holds his own, as the naive lawyer from the East in a land no longer his own.  Hammer's characterization of Reid is not necessarily comical, but more fun.  He is not mean, condescending, and his look of wonder is amazing.  Although he wears a black suit (which suits him), he does, however, wear a white hat.  The bad guys play their parts in tune with the stereotypes that the Western film genre is known for.  Tom Wilkinson embodies the greedy railroad baron.  William Fichtner is greasy, grimy, and just plain ugly as Cavendish, black hat and all.  While most of the comedy comes from the interplay between Depp and Hammer, Cavendish's bad guys provide some of the comedy as well, somewhat reminiscent of a couple of pirates in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.  A running gag throughout the film is “What’s with the mask?” rather than “Who was that masked man?”  The US Army Captain, played by Barry Pepper ("Snitch," "True Grit"), is somewhat reticent in throwing in with the bad guys, but eventually, does so while made up to look like Colonel George A. Custer getting ready to massacre the natives.  Various Deppisms appear throughout the film, I guess, as Easter Eggs for the audience to catch, a spinning paddle illusion of a bird in a cage for one.


The Lone Ranger ~ John Reid on Silver| A Constantly Racing Mind


Historically the film is kind of out of whack.  They filmed in Utah, giving the scenery of the classic old west that never was in Texas.  Picking a time in Ranger history right before the Rangers were disbanded and replaced by Union called the Texas State Police, rather than in the mid 1870's when the Ranger myth was on the increase.  The age of the ancient Tonto, leads the viewer to believe that with evidence from the storyline that he is over 100 years-old.  As much as that is possible, it sounds more improbable.  

Musically, like Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," the compositions are anachronistic.  Between a blend of songs written by Jack White, to music that was composed by John Phillip Sousa in 1898, the music goes nicely on film however, giving us that are aware of the music and the history a bit of nervous tick. We do get to hear the familiar Rossini's "William Tell Overture."

The Lone Ranger ~ Father's Badge | A Constantly Racing Mind


In some magical sense, Disney is trying to bring back the traditional Western film genre by injecting adventure, and reinventing iconic characters and giving them a new look.  Disney maintains some of the old lessons of the original legend of "The Lone Ranger.”  Lessons of “The Lone Ranger” have been and always will be of equality, justice, which the bad guys will not prevail, and good always triumphs in those magical and mythical days of yesteryear.  While using older stereotypes and believing that society has moved on from the old belief system that created them, we look forward, not into the past for a newer, more modern and less serious look at a past that never was. At the end, Tonto, like Pi, from “The Life of Pi,” asks which story you prefer to believe, Tonto asks the young boy does he choose to believe.  I choose to believe. 


Look for the "The Lone Ranger" in theaters now.

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Movie Data

Genre:  Action, Adventure, Western
Year:  2013
Staring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Gore Verbinski
Producer(s): Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski
Writer: Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 149 minutes
Release Date: 7/23/2013