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A Familiar Wild West, But The Guy In The Mask? Who's He?

Jul 2, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 11:38 am

There's never been anything very lone about the Lone Ranger. He's always been accompanied by Tonto, his Native American sidekick; Silver his snow-white steed; and the William Tell Overture.

And in the big-screen version out this Wednesday from Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski, he's also trailed by a wagon train's worth of classic-movie references: Monument Valley settings straight out of John Ford Westerns, steam-locomotive stunts cribbed from Buster Keaton's The General, a one-legged madam who'd seem Alice in Wonderland-ish even if she weren't being played by Helena Bonham Carter. There are even antagonist-buddy routines for the lawman Ranger and the outlaw Indian that might have been lifted straight out of Laurel and Hardy.

Armie Hammer plays the titular Ranger — well, Ranger-to-be when the film gets underway — as a noble do-gooder fresh out of law school, while Johnny Depp's Tonto is a face-painting "noble savage" (that's the movie's phrase) who's forever feeding the dead crow he wears on his head.

They'll bond, but not until the movie introduces Silver — a spirit horse who arrives to lift the ranger's soul literally from the grave. Think of this film's early going as an origin-story version of The Lone Ranger, in which we even get a backstory for the mask. That, and some major shifts in tone.

Audiences expecting a Pirates of the Panhandle from Verbinski — who paired with Depp on that swashbuckling franchise as well as on the ingeniously eccentric animated Western Rango — are in for some serious dry stretches.

The director's been saying his Lone Ranger is a sort of Don Quixote as seen through the eyes of a demented Sancho Panza, and as with that tale of a knight tilting at windmills, there's social commentary everywhere you look in this adventure. The script fancies itself a critique of capitalism, a manifesto on manifest destiny, and a saga about silver mines and the slaughter of Native Americans.

All very admirable, if not a great fit for scenes that involve Depp communing with snaggle-toothed cannibal bunny rabbits and taking a runaway train ride or six.

I mentioned Buster Keaton's train movie The General earlier, but when Keaton did stunts — playing pickup sticks with railway ties to clear the track in front of a moving locomotive, say — he actually did the stunts. The ties had weight.

Here, the director laid six miles of track in New Mexico and built two locomotives — built the locomotives, I said, reportedly for authenticity's sake — so he could do things with real trains.

But he's digitally enhanced and implausibly staged those sequences so thoroughly that he might as well have done the whole thing as a cartoon. There's a couple of hundred million dollars' worth of technical wizardry up there on screen, and nothing is at stake.

Except, maybe, for some future amusement park ride, and the sequels, and toys and hats and masks. And piles and piles of silver, if enough people lay down their hard-earned dollars to hear Hammer's hearty "Hi-yo."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Johnny Depp and his "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski have already made one Western, the animated film "Rango." So with their latest collaboration, "Lone Ranger," they were looking to do something a little different. Critic Bob Mondello says little is not a word he'd use to describe anything about the film. But it's definitely different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE")

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: There's never been anything very lone about the Lone Ranger. He's always been accompanied by Tonto, his Native American sidekick, Silver, his snow-white steed and the "William Tell Overture." And in this version, he's also trailed by movie references: Monument Valley settings straight out of John Ford Westerns, stunts with locomotives cribbed from Buster Keaton's "The General," a one-legged madam who would seem "Alice in Wonderland"-esque even if she weren't being played by Helena Bonham Carter and antagonist-buddy routines for the lawman ranger and the outlaw Indian straight out of Laurel and Hardy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

MONDELLO: Armie Hammer plays this Ranger-to-be as a fresh out of law school noble do-gooder while Johnny Depp's Tonto is a face-painting noble savage - that's the movie's phrase - who's forever feeding the dead crow he wears on his head. They will bond, but not until Silver comes along, a spirit horse to lift the ranger's soul literally from the grave. Think of it as the origin-story version of Lone Ranger, where we even get a back story for the mask and some major shifts in tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

MONDELLO: Audiences expecting Pirates of the Panhandle from Verbinski are in from serious dry stretches. The director's been saying his "Lone Ranger" is sort of "Don Quixote" seen through the eyes of a demented Sancho Panza. And as with that tale of a knight tilting at windmills, there's social commentary everywhere you look.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

MONDELLO: The script fancies itself a critique of capitalism...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

MONDELLO: ...a manifesto on manifest destiny...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

MONDELLO: ...and a saga about silver mines and the slaughter of Native Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

MONDELLO: All very admirable though not a great fit for scenes of Depp communing with snaggle-toothed cannibal bunny rabbits and taking a runaway train ride or six. I mentioned Buster Keaton's train movie "The General" earlier. When Keaton did stunts playing pickup sticks with railway ties to clear the track in front of a moving locomotive, say, he actually did the stunts. The ties had weight.

Here, the director laid six miles of track in New Mexico and built two locomotives so he could do things with real trains that he has so digitally enhanced and implausibly staged that he might as well have done the whole thing as a cartoon. There's a couple of $100 million worth of technical wizardry up there on screen, and nothing is at stake, except maybe some future amusement park ride and the sequels and toys and hats and masks and piles and piles of silver, if enough people lay down their hard-earned silver to hear hi-ho, Silver, away. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.