Like many superhero origin films, this is the film that shows us the origins of the lone ranger and his partnership with the Indian, Tonto, writes Fr Peter Malone MSC.
'What’s with the mask?’ is a question that recurs throughout this quite rollicking film. It is the question to the Lone Ranger, from goodies and baddies, Indians and Chinese, all wanting to know why John Reid is wearing this mask with his bright white hat.
After the press preview, many of the reviewers were agreeing that the 2 ½ hours had passed very quickly, especially for this kind of holiday adventure. They were in a good mood. It’s the kind of action show, with laughs, that extroverted audiences might applaud wildly.
Just as there have been films showing the origins of Batman and Superman, this is the film that shows us the origins of the lone ranger and his partnership with the Indian, Tonto. While the film can be described as rollicking, there are shifts of moods right throughout the film. At one moment, the film is spoofing aspects of the western genre. The next moment we’re wondering about the portrayal of the Indians, the history of the Native Americans, Johnny Depp portraying Tonto, and racist issues. But then we are back with the narrative, the humour, and quite some poking fun at white Americans and American stereotypes – while not forgetting the injustices to the Native Americans and their being used by unscrupulous tycoons to break the peace treaties..
The story opens in San Francisco in 1933, a carnival with an attraction showing pictures of the history of the American west. A little boy, wearing a Lone Ranger mask, goes into have a look and stops at the picture of ‘The Noble Savage in his Setting’. And there is a statue of the Indian, (a bit like A Night at the Museum) coming to life and having a conversation with the little boy, telling the story of the Lone Ranger. It is an aged Tonto. The screenplay keeps coming back to San Francisco and the little boy who keeps asking questions which Tonto doesn’t answer quite accurately some of the time, being accused of making up the story as he goes. And he definitely is. This is one of those ‘write the legend’ instead of ‘print the facts’ kind of story.
The film was made in New Mexico and the photography of the desert and the majestic mesas is most impressive. The recreation of the Texas Town of Colby, where, in 1869, the railroad is progressing through the Lone Star state, helps us feel at home in this west (as it does when the baddies start pursyinig the train and there is a shootup. The production company actually built some miles of rail for the filming of the period and there is the town itself, frontier style. There are farms along the river. There are mountains and caves for mining silver. So the production looks very good. And there is a rousing score by Hans Zimmer.
But, of course, it is a Johnny Depp film. Here he is working with director Gore Verbinski after his collaboration with him for the Pirates of the Caribbean films. His Tonto is far more restrained and ironically witty than his Jack Sparrow. He uses his eyes and body language for his comments on characters and events. There is also quite a lot of slapstick and a great deal of stunt work, action in trains, on top of trains, through trains, horse riding, chases and shootouts.
John Reid, who becomes the Lone Ranger, is a city DA travelling with a group of Presbyterians to the west, studying the rules of government treatise of John Locke. And he is against guns. But as an ultra-serious lawman, he intervenes where prudence would offer some restraint, coming into conflict with the very evil and evil-looking villain, Butch, played by William Fichtner who has done many villains but excels as this one. Mean-looking, mean-acting. And their plenty of sequences to show how he can act in the most dastardly manner.
Armie Hammer, who starred in The Social Network and Mirror, Mirror, is a straight up and down hero who is moved towards justice, tries to control himself against violence, partners Tonto and is led to an ambiguous revenge narrative. This performance won’t do Armie Hammer’s career any harm.
The producers bring in British support with Tom Wilkinson as the evil corporate villain, Ruth Wilson as the wife and love interest, Helena Bonham Carter as a Red, the manager of the local saloon.
As the film goes on, the heroics become rather incredible, and even the military coming in led by Barry Pepper. But it all builds up to a huge confrontation, two trains, a large wooden bridge which is set with dynamite, horse pursuits, riding on top of carriages, and a whole lot of derring-do. And this is all set (at last one might think), to the Lone Ranger theme, a loud and vital rendition of the William Tell Overture.
The little boy goes home from the museum satisfied enough while we are more than set of satisfied and watch the aged Tonto, during the final credits, walk into the far distance.(For movie buffs this may be a tribute to Abbas Kierostami and the ending of Through the Olive Trees!). And, should there be a sequel, why not?
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
THE LONE RANGER. Starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter and Barry Pepper. Directed by Gore Verbinski. 149 minutes. Rated M (violence).
Out July 4, 2013.