Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Fishing in the Discount Bin - The Lone Ranger

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I indulge in my favourite downtime activity:  watching movies.  Today, it's one of the biggest flops of the summer of 2013, but I actually kind of liked it.  And that's Disney's re-imagining of The Lone Ranger.  This originally popped up in my notes at January 12, 2014. 

Well, and here we have another film that can sit alongside John Carter as a film Disney really hoped would start a franchise, became a contender for biggest bomb ever, and the truth is, it's actually not that bad.  And that's The Lone Ranger.

As I said in my review when this film came out, I'd always had a soft spot for The Lone Ranger.  Among my earliest conscious memories of television are watching reruns of the original TV series from the 1950s before church on Sunday mornings.  So I was rather interested when it was announced that Disney had secured the movie rights and was prepping a new big screen version.

Sad thing is, though, could a summer blockbuster Western survive?  Westerns no longer dominated the box office the way they did in the 1950s and 1960s.  If anything, they're seen as period pieces now...Oscar bait, not thrill rides.  So it shouldn't have been much of a surprise when Disney gave the franchise to the same creative team that did the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  After all, the pirate film was once considered a dormant genre and box office poison, but look at how Pirates of the Caribbean brought it back!  Surely, their take on The Lone Ranger could do the same for the Western. 

But sadly, as it is these days, thanks to Batman Begins, they couldn't be content with just giving us the tale of a masked man and his faithful Native American partner dispensing justice in the old West.  It had to be a gritty origin story.  And The Lone Ranger has a pretty gritty origin to begin with.  Seven Texas Rangers pursue the villainous Butch Cavendish and his gang into a canyon, where they're promptly ambushed and left for dead.  Tonto happens upon the scene, and discovers that one of the Rangers survived.  Tonto nurses that lone survivor - John Reid - back to health.  Vowing to bring justice to the lawless West, Reid decides to don a mask (made from the vest from his brother and fellow Texas Ranger who was killed in the attack) and becomes the Lone Ranger with Tonto as his partner.

So how did they take that pretty gritty origin and make it grittier?

First up, they made Butch Cavendish a cannibal.  The last thing John Reid sees before passing out from his injuries is Cavendish cutting open his brother's chest and eating his still-beating heart like an apple. 

I did mention this is a Disney movie, right?

They also complicated the relationship between John Reid, the man who will become the Lone Ranger, and his brother Dan.  Dan Reid has become a legendary Texas Ranger.  John has recently come home from back East, where he's graduated from law school and has just been hired on as the new county prosecutor.  John has always lived in the shadow of his older brother, and that kind of manifests itself in how they enforce the law.  John is a firm believer in the rule of law, and that justice doesn't come from the barrel of a gun.  Dan, however, realizes that things work differently in the real world.  But, the main sticking point is they're both in love with Rebecca.

Rebecca was John's sweetheart, and when John left to spend his 8 years at law school, Rebecca settled for Dan and they got married and had a kid.  Needless to say, John's homecoming makes things all kinds of awkward between these three. 

I do kind of like how they put a new spin on the Lone Ranger/Tonto relationship.  For this interpretation, they decided to make John Reid a bit of a dandy (in Western terminology, a dandy is a person from the big city who's unaccustomed to the ways of the old West.  For the sci-fi crowd, that's the archetype that Simon Tam filled on Firefly), and make Tonto his mentor and teacher in how things work in the West.  So that was an interesting spin, and allowed Johnny Depp to earn his top billing.

And Tonto.  That's the one that most of the publicity and press focused on.  Let's ignore the controversy that arose in having a white guy play one of the best-known Native American heroes in pop culture, and just try to focus on the character.  I remember reading one critic who described Depp's Tonto as "Captain Jack Sparrow with an origin story," and that's pretty accurate.  The origin story is that young Tonto inadvertently sold out his tribe to Butch Cavendish, and he's been wracked with guilt all these years, and also searching for vengeance against Cavendish.  When Tonto rescues John Reid from that ambush, he'd originally hoped he rescued Dan to aid him in his quest.  At one point, an angry Tonto tells the Lone Ranger that the famous "kemo sabe" actually means "wrong brother."  But still, Tonto still sees a potential ally, and convinces our Lone Ranger of various Comanche superstitions that make him out to be some kind of chosen one, and the Ranger's disappointment when they actually meet a Comanche tribe and they reveal that Tonto's tales are the delusions of a guilt-ridden mind. 

And that really is the main journey of this film:  how this Eastern dandy eventually learns that justice means more than the rule of law, escape from this brother's shadow, and eventually grow into the legend that is the Lone Ranger. 

That being said, though, it does get a little strange on some places.  Like how Silver has this almost-magical ability to just appear when he's needed.  Or the carnivorous bunny rabbits.  And just the whole framing story with a very old Tonto in 1933 telling this tale to a Lone Ranger-adoring child he meets at a carnival sideshow. 

Some great wasted concepts, too.  Like Helena Bonham Carter as Red, a madam who aids the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  A victim of Cavendish's.  He took and ate one of her legs, and now she has an artificial leg made of ivory with a rifle hidden within.  It would have been nice if she had some actual stuff to do in the film, but she shows up for about 5 minutes to give our heroes some information, and then shows up at the end to set up a bomb.  She really seems like such a dynamic character, and we get so little. 

There are a few too many villains, and it does take a little too long for them to come together and the entire evil scheme be presented.  It does make all the shifting allegiances a little tough to keep track of...kind of like in Pirates of the Caribbean.

But for me, what makes this film so amazing and spectacular and ass-kicking is the gigantic climatic train chase.  It is one action sequence that just never lets up.  And since it's pretty much the only place in the film where the William Tell Overture (known widely in pop culture as the Lone Ranger theme) is used in a big, bad, beautiful way, turning the entire scene into some kind of action filled Fantasia sequence.  When I saw the film in the summer, seriously, that climactic train chase is worth the price of admission.  I bought the film on Blu-Ray pretty much just to watch that scene over and over and over again.  It's pure cinematic brilliance. 

I can overlook every flaw in the movie because that train chase finale is so perfect.

At the end of the day, The Lone Ranger isn't as bad as everyone says.  There's lots of good to be had, if you're willing to sit through some of the strangeness. 

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