By Cleaver Patterson.
Many years ago, when the American West was still wild and the railway was being used to bring the two coasts of that great nation together, there was a man of the law called John Reid (Armie Hammer). In the midst of the open deserts of Texas he met his ‘spirit horse’ Silver and the native warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp). Along with these two he became a new force for good, the Lone Ranger, and an American legend was born. Hollywood has always, even from it’s inception at the opening of the 20th century, suffered from hype and an overinflated sense of self-worth. Its budgets were bigger, stars starrier and the resulting films often more far-fetched (and stretched) than those produced in Europe and elsewhere around the world. You could perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, forgive those early celluloid pioneers for falling for their own publicity – they did after all, if not create the medium of film, certainly make it the intrinsic element of universal, popular culture that it is today. However, back when Cecil B DeMille created his 136 minute epic The Ten Commandments (1923) for the then colossal budget of $1.8 million, there was an excuse. Without the myriad of diversions available to preoccupy modern audiences during out-of-work hours, people flocked in their millions every week to worship the gods and goddesses of the silver screen.
So why in the 21st century, with so much competing for a potential viewer’s hard earned cash and spare time, do big studios still believe that throwing obscene amounts of money at star names and having running times never short of an obligatory 120-plus minutes is justifiable? The duration of the film is possibly excusable, after all the filmmakers want you to feel that you are getting your money’s worth; out of five of this summer’s biggest releases only one, World War Z (2013), was less than two hours, running at 116 minutes, with Iron Man 3 (2013), Man of Steel (2013), Pacific Rim (2013) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), all coming in at 130-plus minutes. If the film is engrossing, its otherwise bum-numbing duration can seem like, if not moments, at least mere minutes. Unfortunately with much of the current spate of inane, high-octane spectacle on show, this is not the case.
Time aside, the main question must be the rising cost of producing this endless stream of blockbusters, each trying to surpass what’s gone before. The most hard to swallow elements of this are the eye-watering fees which the stars of the productions deem they are worth. Rumor has it that Johnny Depp has been offered $50 million to star in the next installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean, an amount which could probably fund most of Britain’s film output for a year. Studio bosses may of course argue that it is the star who draws audiences, but in reality is the cinema going public really that gullible? Admittedly, many do go to see a film if it features a certain big name, but in the end the majority of people will want to see a film because they like its premise, irrespective of which stars are above the title.
Which brings us to The Lone Ranger. On the face of it, director Gore Verbinski’s big screen interpretation of the American fictional hero, who first appeared on a radio show in 1933 and went on to star in his own television series, comic books and films, encompasses everything mentioned above which is wrong with what is coming out of Hollywood. Produced by one of the biggest studios, Disney, the film stars Depp as the Lone Ranger’s sparring partner Tonto, and runs at a coma inducing 149 minutes. It relies heavily on effects and CGI, has a storyline which is at times convoluted and hard to follow as well as suffering from long segments of drawn out, over-indulgent dialogue, and dwells rather necessarily on the unpleasant culinary predilections of the film’s main bad boy, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Add to this the potentially explosive subject matter of the early settlers in America’s Wild West and their interaction with and treatment of native American Indians at that time (along with Depp’s typically bizarre portrayal of one of the said natives), and it is hardly surprising that the film was being panned before it had even been released.
Strangely though, it works. You are never uncomfortably conscious of any digital enhancement as, because there is no alien involvement or futuristic setting, you actually get the impression that CGI is used to add scope to the proceedings (which it does with majesty) and isn’t just there for the ‘effect’. Filmed on location against such awe-inspiring backdrops as Arizona’s Monument Valley and New Mexico’s Shiprock, the settings help to draw the viewer in whilst giving an added authenticity to the proceedings. As for the cast? From Depp and Hammer, who bicker throughout like an old married couple to the wonderfully camp support of Helena Bonham Carter as Red Harrington, the local straight talking ‘madame’ who quite literally ‘shoots from the hip’, and the grotesque and sinister Fichtner, they interact seamlessly in a story which cleverly melds elements of America’s past into a boy’s own adventure reminiscent of the glory days of the cinema western from the 1940’s and 1950’s.
The film’s length does admittedly test your patience. Like many films which run at more than 90 minutes, there are overstretched segments (particularly some of the fight scenes) that could be tightened without loosing any of their bite. However, all this is soon forgotten with the last half hour of the film. Though the climatic train scenes set to the familiar strains of the William Tell Overture and the inevitable inclusion of the Lone Ranger’s legendary battle-cry of ‘Hi Ho, Silver’ are in danger of verging on the cheesy, the whole thing is approached with such obvious relish and respect for the place the Lone Ranger holds in the history of American popular culture, that only a real curmudgeon would deny the film’s sense of escapist fun.
Of course, the end of the film leaves it open for further adventures for the lone law man and his trusty sidekick. Only time will tell, however, whether this duo of wild west crime-busters return, or whether that most important element in a film’s ultimate success, the paying public, decide that they should ride into the sunset permanently.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.
The Lone Ranger opened in the USA on July 3rd, 2013. It will open in the UK on August 9th, 2013.
For a different take on The Lone Ranger, see Christopher Sharrett’s review here.