History repeats itself in more ways than one.
Way back in 1981 a big budgeted “new/updated” version of The Lone Ranger, a classic western pulp adventure series which at that point was known mostly for the famous 1949 to 1957 TV series starring Clayton Moore, was set to be released. Early word wasn’t all that encouraging, and when The Legend of the Lone Ranger finally arrived in theaters, the critics were incredibly harsh.
That film proceeded to flop. Hard. How hard? Newcomer Klinton Spilsbury, the man who played the title role of the Lone Ranger, has not appeared in another movie or TV show since. The Legend of the Lone Ranger remains his one, and only, movie credit.
In 2012 Walt Disney Studios were set to release another big budgeted would-be summer blockbuster. Based on a popular early pulp novel series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter took on a life of its own -all negative- even before its release. Leaked missives hinted at the studio’s displeasure with the product while extensive re-shoots were reportedly made. By the time the film was finally released, audiences were poisoned against the product. Sure, there were those who defended it along with the many who knocked it. In the end, I fell somewhere in the middle and felt that while the film wasn’t as atrocious as others felt it was, it was at best a decent time killer but certainly not something worthy of its incredibly big budget (if you’re curious, my review of John Carter can be found here).
A year later, the very same Walt Disney Studios got director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp, both of whom hit mega-pay-dirt with Pirates of the Caribbean and its sequels, to once again take on The Lone Ranger. Released in the summer of 2013 this film, like its 1981 predecessor and last year’s John Carter, turned into another embarrassing big budget flop for that studio.
So…what happened? Was this film also the victim of bad pre-release press? Was the movie’s failure further proof that the western genre is dead? Had there developed a backlash against Johnny Depp and his sometimes “out there” characterization/acting? And perhaps the most important question of all: Was The Long Ranger really as bad as many said it was?
When I finally sat down to watch the film, I tried to keep my mind as neutral as possible. There were far more people, it seemed to me anyway, that had a negative opinion about this film versus John Carter. And yet, there were also many who staunchly defended it.
During the first few minutes of the film I was rewarded with something that…wasn’t all that bad at all. In fact, I wound up enjoying the first thirty to forty five minutes of the film quite a bit. I was certain I’d fall into the “I like it” camp.
Let’s be brutally honest here: The Lone Ranger clocks in at a ridiculous 149 minutes long according to IMDB.
Two and a half hours?!
As good as the movie’s opening segments were, as the film reached its middle, I began to feel restless. During the course of this mid section of the film we were introduced to strange/ferocious/mutant(?) rabbits, a prolonged and increasingly less amusing bit involving a child in 1933 being told the story we’re seeing by a very old Tonto who may or may not be an apparition in the kid’s head, an Indian tribe about to be massacred, and Helena Bonham Carter as a madam with a prosthetic ivory leg she hides a rifle in.
Most of what I mentioned above could have been eliminated from the film without seriously impacting it. The Indian tribe massacre sequence was particularly egregious as we’re supposed to be horrified by it yet immediately afterward (we’re talking seconds after the two main characters realize this noble tribe has been wiped out!) we’re hit with a joke regarding a horse on a tree. The ferocious/mutant rabbits really had me scratching my head. I guess whatever the filmmakers were going for must have really worked on the page but was completely lost in the translation to film. I found the rabbits neither interesting nor humorous nor worthy of being in the film at all. What I came to realize is that the middle segment of the film featured a lot of ideas presented without any real focus. I was now thinking I’d fall into the “didn’t like it” camp.
But then, like the Lone Ranger himself, the film heroically rises from that messy middle to deliver a genuinely thrilling ending.
In sum, we have a film with a pretty good start and end jammed between a mediocre and bloated middle.
So, back to the questions at hand:
Was the film a victim of its negative pre-release? I suppose. Like John Carter there was early word that the film wasn’t all that good and when the first images of Johnny Depp as Tonto were released, he looked rather ridiculous. Still, I suspect people found what they saw and heard about The Lone Ranger confusing, and I’m sure that didn’t help to bring ’em to the theater.
Was Johnny Depp guilty of delivering another of his highly stylized characterizations and is it possible audiences had finally had their fill of this? Absolutely. The character of Tonto takes up quite a bit of space versus the Lone Ranger. Having said that, if Mr. Depp’s Tonto wasn’t in the film and wasn’t as humorous and engaging as he was, the film would have been a far, far worse experience.
Is the movie’s failure a further sign that the Western is dead? I suppose one could make that argument. However, if there is one genre that was even deader than the western it was the pirate film, and that didn’t stop Pirates of the Caribbean from being a hell of a success. If the makers of The Lone Ranger could have kept the middle section of the film as good as the beginning and end, I suspect things might have turned out very differently.
In conclusion, I can only give The Lone Ranger a mild recommendation and in this it shares the same impression John Carter gave me a year before. The Lone Ranger is a decent enough film and, in my opinion, an overall better one than John Carter, but considering its bloated budget one expected something that was overall far, far better. A shame.