Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Lone Ranger: 2013 movie review

The Lone Ranger (2013 movie)
Although The Lone Ranger premieres in the movie theaters tomorrow, my wife and I were privy to a screening at our local theater -- courtesy of a few good friends who arranged for us and a small group of people to preview the film before it goes nationwide. Having listened to over 1,000 of the radio broadcasts (circa 1938 to 1954) over the past decade, watched all 200 plus television episodes, read over 200 of the radio scripts (from 1933 to 1935) and read more than half of the 18 novels written by Fran Striker... not counting a scholarly review of the George W. Trendle archive in both public and private collections... I can say that I am well-versed in the history of The Lone Ranger.

Before I compose a quick review of the movie, I would like to remind people that the image of The Lone Ranger is both iconic in pop culture and "legendary." He premiered on radio in 1933, five years before Superman made his initial appearance in the comics. He was taller than six feet, well-built, displayed polite and dignified mannerisms, spoke with an educated voice, both deep and convincing, never shot or killed a human being and respected both God and nature. He rode a white stallion that was larger than life, sped faster than a speeding bullet (hence the classic opener "a cloud of dust...") and represented the best a hero can be when the call of bravery shouted among the meek.

The Lone Ranger was a true superhero of the Wild West.

Fran Striker, under the guidance of radio magnate George W. Trendle, created the radio program and for more than a decade Striker wrote almost every story. Except for a brief spell in the mid-forties when he left for greener pastures over a dispute about his salary for keeping up with the demand of writing three new scripts a week, he guided and shaped the series into the program we are familiar with today.

Johnny Depp as Tonto... not so faithful
Flash forward to 2003 when Walt Disney released Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, directed by Gore Verbinski, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. I have to admit that the movie was one of the two best that year. Depp's portrayal of a castaway pirate was not original: he mimicked a drunk Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. But the story, the camerawork, the special effects and Depp made it a fun movie. (Ignore the sequels, by the way.)

So I can imagine the gleam in the eye of Disney executives when someone pitched them the idea: "It's Pirates of the Caribbean meets the Wild, Wild, West with an already successful franchise, The Lone Ranger and... get this... hold on to your hats... Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto." The executives must have been cheering with joy. The cost? An estimated $215 million dollars, plus an additional (rumored) $175 million in advertising to promote it. I have no doubt the film was previewed for a test audience months ago and the results were... well, if the folks at Disney have stomach ulcers worrying if they will make the $400 million domestically before the movie departs for DVD this Christmas, they have cause to worry. What worked for Pirates doesn't necessarily work for an adaptation of a children's Western. Let's be honest. Making a movie out of an amusement park ride is easy -- the movie establishes a franchise and creates characters we can grow to love. But trying to make one's own version with a property we are already familiar with after eight decades... they are tampering with the design of the automobile tire. It's round -- leave it that way.

For weeks now I watched every advertisement on television, teaser and promotional footage. Tonto wearing a dead crow on his head? The Lone Ranger raising his hands up, surrendering cowardly? The great white horse Silver standing on a tree branch? Still, I shrugged and decided to attend the screening and wipe the slate clean. Let's be honest. Walking in the theater and expecting to see The Lone Ranger as I envisioned all these years listening to old radio broadcasts is nonsensical. Ditto if I expected to see a Clayton Moore lookalike. So I went in with an open mind, fully aware that the silver screen can never be 100 percent faithful to the original and hoped for the best.

Warning: Minor spoilers below! But I did avoid giving away anything really important so if you plan to watch the movie, I won't be ruining your fun. They are more warnings than spoilers.

The movie has flaws and while I could focus on them, you'll probably sleep better not knowing most of them. Focusing briefly on the plus side: the plot and story about railroad magnates attempting to take over the country is great. So is Tom Wilkinson's dialogue on board the train when his true motives are revealed. It is the kind of story I expected to see in any Lone Ranger movie. The retelling has a few revisions (with nice touches) and the massacre at Bryant's Gap and the outlaw Butch Cavendish are all there.

The entire cast (except for Johnny Depp) is perfect in their roles. The special effects is as good as expected. Production values are up there as they spent a lot of money putting this together. How they managed to spend $200 plus million is beyond me. I have seen movies cost $60 million and look just as polished. The location scenery is excellent.

Tonto and his faithful companion, The Lone Ranger
In fact, everything about the movie is great... except for Tonto. There are Comanche Indians in the movie (apparently Navajo Indians were used for the cast, according to the closing credits) and the people playing those roles look more like the Tonto character than Johnny Depp. Tonto, the faithful sidekick for The Lone Ranger throughout the thirties, forties and fifties, is now the guiding light for this rendition: and played solely for laughs. None of which is funny. The audience in the theater was not laughing. Tonto is trying to prevent Silver from drinking alcohol bottle after bottle. Tonto is trying to feed cracked corn to his dead crow. While Tonto is riding the white horse, Silver poops on The Lone Ranger. I got the impression that the first draft of the script was played straight and was later revised after Johnny Depp signed as an Executive Producer and to play the role of Tonto. If Tonto had been played straight like the character he was for three decades, this movie would have been great. In short, the comedy wasn't funny and the producer, the director, the actor and the distributor should have known better. If you license a franchise from a successful pop culture property, you need to keep it faithful. It's been 30 years and people still crack jokes about the 1981 motion-picture. I suspect they will be doing the same about this one 30 years from now. Heck, the catch phrase "Who was that Masked Man?" which appears in half of the radio and TV shows is never even uttered during the 148 minutes! 

Now that's a faithful Indian companion!
It gets worse: I haven't even mentioned the man who cuts out a heart from a man's chest and eats it. Bunny rabbits that turn cannibalistic. An Indian massacre that isn't even emotionally moving but was clearly meant to be. They even refer to The Lone Ranger as John Reid. Every Lone Ranger authority and historian knows that John Reid was never his name. (His last name was Reid but his first name was never revealed in any of the radio or television programs, or the books authored by Fran Striker.) Striker always wanted it to remain a mystery. The origin of John Reid dates to The Big Broadcast, an encyclopedia on the 1960s that somehow made a small error by printing that and it somehow became the gospel. (This is what happens when people don't do research, rather they choose to consult published reference guides.) This error later got reprinted in the 1980s Green Hornet comic books and the 1981 motion-picture. (I'm waiting for the day Warner Bros. decides to refer to Superman as Charles Kent...)

There are shades of brilliance: from the silver bullet flying through the air to an explanation of the eye holes in the mask. The use of the final movement of the William Tell Overture which is synonymous with The Lone Ranger is also used. I liked the idea of an aged Indian, in 1933, recounting the legend to a young boy. But it was the final 25 minutes when the music spiked and The Lone Ranger appeared on the roof tops on the great steed Silver, charging for the runaway train, that I cheered and like a kid on cocaine I was rooting for him to pull out those ivory-handled six-shooters and start blazing away. And he did. Forget the fact that he shot more bullets than we could count (and he did not reload between action scenes). He was doing something... well, legendary. Something witnesses would later tell their disbelieving grandchildren -- and women turn to their husbands, grabbing them by the arm, pointing and shouting "Who was that Masked Man?" But somehow it doesn't make up for the bad comedy (ala Johnny Depp's Tonto).

There are five inside jokes and tip-of-the-hat references in the movie. 
Inside Jokes: Spoilers 
(You might want to skip this paragraph until after you watch the movie.)
1933 was the year when The Lone Ranger made his initial appearance. "Thrilling Days of Yesteryear" is plastered on a banner in the beginning of the movie, a phrase spoken at the beginning of every radio and TV broadcast. One of the villains is named Clayton (obviously named after Clayton Moore, TV's Lone Ranger), Dan Reid (The Lone Ranger's nephew who would later go on to establish The Daily Sentinel, ala The Green Hornet), and the name etched on the back of the Texas Ranger badge is G.W. Reid (George W. Trendle, referenced above).

No spoilers here....
You can tell the cast and crew put time and effort to make a good movie that pays homage to The Lone Ranger. To commemorate the 80th anniversary of The Lone Ranger, Disney did a Western remake of Pirates of the Caribbean and it shows. (By the way, same script writers, too.) From a group of drunken and disorderly ladies, outlaw bandits who (some of them at least) do not have their head on too tight (also played by some of the same actors who played the villainous pirates in the former)... it's the same thing all over again. If Disney takes a financial loss as a result of this movie it will be because of one major reason: the way they choose to do Tonto.

The last Lone Ranger motion-picture was in 1981 and it took them 30 years to produce another. I guess we'll just have to wait another 30 years to see if they can get it right. If we are lucky, we won't have to wait that long. The 100th Anniversary is 20 years from now...

Closing Comments
This movie was not produced for an aging fan base that grew up watching The Lone Ranger. Anyone over the age of 60 will probably leave the theaters in disgust and disappointment. The movie was clearly produced with a demographic that today pays for the majority of the tickets: young kids under the age of 25 who want to see Johnny Depp play Captain Sparrow. My big fear is that kids today who never grew up watching The Lone Ranger or do not even know who The Lone Ranger is, will think of this representation. They should have titled this movie "Tonto and The Lone Ranger."

Johnny Depp as a man with a dead crow on his head.
Before finishing this write-up, I took a quick minute and checked out what The New York Times, Variety, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times and The Washington Post, among others, all had to say in their reviews. It seems great minds think alike and Disney is not going to be quoting newspaper columnists in TV spots after opening weekend. (My favorite was the remark by The Huffington Post: "I saw The Lone Ranger because I had to write a review for my weekly outlet. And it was so pointlessly awful that I wrote a review before I left. Because, as a mentor of mine once said, there's no point in patting idiots on the head. Everything you need to know about this movie can be found in four little words: Pirates of the Caribbean. Everything that was wrong with that series of films (and that includes the first one, the only watchable movie in the bunch) is amplified in The Lone Ranger. Combine the visual excess of director Gore Verbinski with producer Jerry Bruckheimer's addiction to spectacle and Johnny Depp's mugging and, well, you can do the math."

Will the movie make a bunch of money for the studio on the opening weekend? Sure it will. With all the money backing the publicity. And remember that it will be a five-day weekend gross, not three. Besides, other than fireworks and a night at the ballpark, what else are you going to do on the Fourth of July? My curiosity will be how much money it makes during the second weekend...

Which leads me to a closing thought: The Lone Ranger movie reminds me of a two panel comic that appeared in news print in 1997. Both containing a group of people sitting at a table having a board meeting, the left panel said, "How Hollywood Should Work" and the man at the head of the table commenting, "You know, we should let people like James Cameron bring their own creative production ideas to the table and give them the leverage they need to produce great entertainment." On the right, the caption read, "How Hollywood Really Works" and the same man at the head of the table comments, "We should do a movie about big boats sinking. What boat can we sink that's bigger than The Titanic?" Truth in humor.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Martin--we don't go to the movies that often but I'm going to DVR a special on the movie tomorrow. Hope this finds you well. Amy and I are doing fine.

Anonymous said...

I liked it. No, I loved it and I grew up watching The Lone Ranger tv shows and all the rest of great westerns while playing Cowboys and Indians with my neighborhood friends whenever I could. But fortunately something told me not to have any preconceived ideas about this film and so not even being a Johnny Depp fan, I was prepared for anything. What I found besides a high action adventure movie which puts all the metallic super heroes to shame was a film with a message. There was a true to life role reversal about savagery, justice, greed and all of the things which have made our great country great in the name of progress. and the millions of millions of indigenous people have who paid a huge price for it. Johnny Depp's portrayal of Tonto was on target. I understand the Navajos like it and I am betting more Indian tribes like it too. So did my husband and I who have an Athabascan Indian daughter. This move was chocked full of symbolism, Native American spirituality including shape shifers, sacred ravens and Spirit horses and yes, Indian humor. I applaud Disney's attempt to take a hugely tragic historical happening and attempt to put in a venue for our modern age kids who know next to nothing about Indians tribes in the West. And I also applaud Disney for having the courage to release it right before Independence Day amidst our celebrations of fireworks and patriotic speeches. The provocative and touching last scene during the last of the credits of Tonto walking into the desert with a black hat carrying a suitcase brought me to tears.

Jack Coupal said...

One movie reviewer said - probably thinking it was complimentary in some way - that Tonto had some good one-liners.

After reading that - and remembering listening to the Lone Ranger radio shows while building my Lincoln Log cabins - I knew that Disney was in for even more hurt (emotionally and financially).

Anonymous said...

I went to it fearing dread but I was surprised. I grew up listening to the show on tape and watching the show on TV but unlike you I don't have the vast knowledge about everything but still I enjoyed it. Some things you said rang true others sounded like someone who was more happy knitpickinging and following others. One thing I do hope that some young person will see the movie and seek bout more information about the radio show and or the TV show and lead them into an interesting field.

Anonymous said...

Movie sucked. Saw it yesterday. I agree with most of your opinions above.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of crap.... No, not the movie but the whole stupid herd who cannot make up their own mind and must, instead, blindly follow pop movie and lengthy online reviews. Thus already looking for flaws in a movie when rotten tomatoes says anything but "great movie, MUST SEE"...
Let me borrow a phrase from the Joker and aim it at this sour-faced crowd of movie "experts" :

Why so serious?

The purpose of this movie was fun... And it delivered in a rich parody. No no no NOT Jack Sparrow in the wild west.. But good!

Go see this movie, I guarantee most everyone here will enjoy it if they will stop trying to find flaws and problems with a movie that is intentionally flawed... Remember Napoleon Dynamite? Odd but worthy of at least a single viewing. Lighten up and go watch a dang movie, gosh!

Theodore Hawthorne said...

Never have I seen a movie so profiled in reviews by the mass public as this one. A very large fan base that became apprehensive when they saw a dead crow on Tonto's head, I can see why so many people are checking the reviews and listening to feedback before deciding whether or not to see the movie. My wife and I saw it the other week and it was terrible. The recent explosion of dislike at the panel at the Winston-Salem Western Film Festival this past weekend ensures how many people really hated it. Martin Grams's review above is about as accurate as all the other negative reviews I have read.

Mr. Grams devoted two whole paragraphs about what was good with the movie. He also devoted two paragraphs what he thought was wrong with the movie. The rest of the review seems to be devoted to what he felt the profile of The Lone Ranger is and what is should have been. Seems he's in the middle but leaning towards "thumbs down." If his review was meant to deter ticket sales, he would not have provided "spoiler alerts" for those who are going to see the movie anyway. In defense of Mr. Grams, he did say he went in with an open mind and no expectations.

Producers and studios ignore critics anyway. They only pay attention to box office receipts. Considering the dollars dropped big time for the second weekend, that speaks volumes. So, Mr. Anonymous (who chooses to hide behind his computer), if you feel that strongly about the movie why not buy another ticket?

BJ Wanlund said...

I went in about a week ago now to see this movie, and I actually really liked it. I can actually agree with the critics on one thing: the pacing of the plot was a bit slow. Other than that, I totally loved the movie. Of the three movies I've seen this summer it is about the most respectful to the source material without deviating too much. The most recent Star Trek movie is more like Star Wars with a Star Trek: The Original Series overlay, while Man of Steel got jeers for the rather blatant product placement, but I felt it grounded it in as much reality as you could stand for a Superman movie.

I went into this with severe trepidation because Dreamworks owns the property now (after its acquisition of Classic Media last year) and I figured Disney would screw it up somehow, but somehow they didn't. Yeah, okay, Johnny Depp is Jack Sparrow with a backstory as Tonto, but I thought the backstory for Tonto in this version (and I have to be careful to say this VERSION) was fairly dark for a Disney movie, so props to Disney on that one.

Also, I have to respond to the Pirates movie thing: I find the first movie to be the LEAST watchable of the whole lot. It's basically the entire plot to the 1990 videogame The Secret of Monkey Island, with Will Turner being Guybrush, Elizabeth Swann being Elaine Marley. and Barbossa being the ghost/zombie pirate LeChuck. Thankfully they deviated away from that somewhat in later movies. (Which is why I take the fairly controversial viewpoint that Pirates: On Stranger Tides is the most watchable Pirates movie of them all)

And one other thing: I think The Lone Ranger was done right. Yeah, okay, they played him up as a bit of a buffoon early on, but man I left the movie theatre on such a high note that even a week after I saw the movie I cannot wait to see it again on home media.

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