At this point, the Jerry Bruckheimer/Gore Verbinski adaptation of the old radio and TV series The Lone Ranger has been a huge box office disappointment, a critical failure, and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of Quentin Tarantino's ten favorite films of 2013. Well, this flick deserves neither the vitriol nor the praise. It's just... okay.
First off, it is oddly set-up as a kind of Old West buddy-cop comedy. A series of cirumstances force John Reid, aka you-know-who (The Social Network's Armie Hammer), and Tonto (Johnny Depp), to team up to hunt down Butch Cavendish (a heavily made-up William Fichtner), who has murdered members of both men's families. Reid is a straight-arrow who intends to capture Cavendish so that he can be properly tried in a court of law, while Tonto is half-mad and believes that Cavendish is a supernatural Wendigo who must be taken down with a silver bullet. As in any good buddy movie, they bicker and try to lose each other at various junctures and go at the problem alone -- until they realize that they must depend on each other if they're going to succeed.
Ruth Wilson (TV's Luther) plays the wife of John Reid's late brother, who actually dated John first, years ago. While that set-up seems ripe for drama, their relationship isn't given much room to develop, even with the film running a patience-testing 149 minutes, but she and her son (Bryant Prince) inevitably end up in danger and need saving.
Helena Bonham Carter shows up as the proprietor of a house of sin, who turns out to be sympathetic to our heroes because she too lost something to Butch Cavendish: her leg. In its place is an ivory prosthetic leg that has a gadget inside, which can pop out and fire bullets, a concept which not only rips off Grindhouse but seems like it was cooked up by Kevin Kline's character in that harebrained Wild Wild West movie from the late '90s -- where it should have remained.
Speaking of the late '90s, Tom Wilkinson seems to again be playing the same role he played in 1998's Rush Hour, i.e., a villain who we're supposed to think is not a villain for about the first two-thirds of the movie, but is pretty obviously a villain from his first frame onscreen.
Now, it's fun to poke holes in the big, silly formulaic would-be blockbuster, but here's the thing: a lot more of The Lone Ranger works than you would expect. As silly as their character arcs are, Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp have great chemistry and are a lot of fun to watch in these roles. Depp caught a lot of flack for being a mostly white dude who plays a stock Native American role. But Depp slyly uses the deep-voiced halting speech we would expect from Tonto to add a particular dryness to his wisecracks that manages to squeeze a few extra surprise laughs out. (His bizarre dead crow headdress is given an elaborate backstory, as if to say, "We didn't just put a dead bird on his head to be weird, it's for the sake of story," when the filmmakers probably could have just let sleeping crows lie.)
The somewhat trippy sense of visual humor that director Verbinski showed off in his Oscar-winning animated movie Rango resurfaces here in welcome sporadic bursts, such as the frequent, unexplained appearances of The Lone Ranger's horse in seemingly impossible places, like on a tree limb or on top of a barn. The bookending action setpieces involving out-of-control trains -- real trains built by the film crew that famously helped the production go over-budget and which are largely why Tarantino seems so impressed with the film -- are giddy, ridiculous, and frankly the main reason to watch the film. Verbinski's approach to these train chases are a bit like Buster Keaton mixed with the Mission: Impossible films -- unbelievable real stunts augmented by new-fangled movie magic (you know: computers). These sequences are so hectic that one might not fully absorb them on first viewing, but they are complex enough as to be worth revisiting.