Thursday 8 August 2013


(Gore Verbinski, 2013)

An insanely ambitious, barking mad western adventure epic, it feels somehow miraculous that The Lone Ranger exists at all. It's commercial underperformance only underlines this - what studio would be mad enough to spend (a reputed) $200 million on a film in a genre which is always a box office gamble based upon a character who has largely faded from the pop culture memory?
But exist it does, and, though it is probably an hour longer than it has any right to be, it might actually be the most roundly entertaining of this summer's blockbuster movies.
It takes the theme park approach to the Western genre, bringing the audience on a tour through stock situations. So we have a bank robbery, a train holdup, cavalry versus indians, an ambush in a mountain pass, heroes buried up to their necks in the sand, the travelling construction of a raildoad by Chinese workers, an explosion in a silver mine, a whorehouse...
The story serves as an origin: John Reed (Armie Hammer, likeable throughout) travels back to his childhood home in the West after years studying law on the East coast. There the murder of his brother, legendary lawman Dan Reed (James Badge Dale) opens up a complex conspiracy involving the railroad, silver deposits, the exploitation of the Comanche and a vicious psychotic cannibal killer Butch (William Fichtner). Reed winds up believed dead and wearing a mask alongside the possibly insane Comanche Tonto (Johnny Depp).
The plot is unnecessarily convoluted, with too many characters and too many pointless episodes (Helena Bonham Carter as a Madame is entirely superfluous as is Barry Pepper and his Cavalry detachment) but that adds to the epic, frenzied feel. An issue is the way it all has to rise to an action crescendo every fifteen minutes or so. Luckily Verbinski has honed his abilities in that department over three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and some of the action set-pieces here are absolutely inspired, most obviously the climactic twin-train sequence, which nods to Buster Keaton in its mix of slapstick and complex action choreography.
That is only one of dozens of references, mostly to classic Westerns, with obvious homages to Sergio Leone and John Ford amongst them. This reflects one of the film's greatest strengths; in this season of big dumb movies with no ideas, it actually has a theme. It is about how history is written by the victors, no matter what the truth may be ("Print the legend") and also to some extent about the power of myth. The way it integrates this within it's packed narrative - the whole thing narrated by an aged Tonto (in what looks like a Little Big Man reference) to a young boy at a San Francisco fair in 1933 - is often problematic, but its ambition and the extent to which it succeeds is admirable.
Also likeable is its comedy; subtler and wittier than the Pirates films, it uses Depp's superb deadpan in contrast to the insanity often surrounding him, and scores some laughs through ironic takes on classic or corny old tropes.
It looks absolutely beautiful; cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and Verbinski stage and shoot some scenes which appear generically familiar with wit, invention and imagination, and of course that familiarity fades as the true sense of delirious fun here is revealed. It rollicks along, its humour and action balanced by some interesting darker elements, it's occasionally dull script enlivened by the direction, design and strong cast.

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