In some ways, The Lone Ranger has been dead on arrival since 2011, when the denizens of the Internet (including yours truly, though I wish I could say differently) roused in delight at the news that Walt Disney Pictures was putting the film on hold so the production could get a better handle on a bloated budget that was close to approaching $300 million. Thus began a freefall that has not stopped for a movie that performed so poorly for the Walt Disney Company that it severed ties with once-legendary super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. A deal that stretched back to the mid-1990s is now defunct, outside of the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film, all because Johnny Depp had to wear a bird on the top of his head as he played Tonto to Armie Hammer’s masked hero of legend and lore.
OK, I’m being glib. Though Depp’s headwear was absolutely a talking point before The Lone Ranger came out, the film as a whole has a host of issues, many of which are surprising, if only because they appear under the auspices of the Disney banner. Now, granted, the conversation that sprung up around Gore Verbinski’s latest film was frustrating in ways that are becoming distressingly familiar on Twitter and Facebook and message boards: the people who seemed most vicious when discussing The Lone Ranger would make it clear that they had no intention of ever seeing the film. Being fair, I do not write today’s column to fully champion the film; however, at this point, we should all agree that you can only mock a film so many times before you must be forced to watch that film to see if your jeers have any merit. (As I write these words, I realize that this may condemn me to a lifetime of watching the Air Bud series, so maybe we can make this a case-by-case basis kind of rule.)
The Lone Ranger shares, in the public discourse, a connection with John Carter, the loudly maligned adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories that were a major inspiration for the Star Wars films. Both movies were set up to fail well before they opened to audiences around the world; both were Disney films; both were adaptations of properties from the early part of the 20th century; both were fantastical origin stories with arguably excessive production budgets, special effects, and more. I would, of course, argue that John Carter is a better film (flawed, but better), but in this respect, as people sarcastically slam films they have not seen and likely will never see, it’s hard not to feel a bit bad for The Lone Ranger. Because here’s the thing: I can only offer the mildest of recommendations to this movie, but I did not dread rewatching it on Blu-ray (it’s now available both on Blu-ray and DVD) in the way that I would dread rewatching at least half of this past summer’s releases. I will gladly watch The Lone Ranger again, but stick me in front of Man of Steel, and I may throw a shoe at the screen.
I want to make this much clear: at best, The Lone Ranger is a marvel of action-sequence construction. I can heartily encourage you to watch the first and last half-hours of this movie, as you will witness some seriously entertaining setpieces. But I would just as heartily implore you to fast-forward through the 90 minutes wedged in between. As I watched the film for a second time, I realized that The Lone Ranger is fairly schizophrenic in tone and nature. On one hand, it wants to be a less profane, but no less colorful, take on the Old West in much the way that the greatest drama on television, Deadwood, was. On the other hand, it wants to be a thematic brother to the brighter, poppy elements of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. (Let’s be clear, those movies aren’t exactly rays of sunshine, as the second film has a scene near the beginning where a crow pecks a man’s eye out on screen.) This thematic split is best displayed in two consecutive scenes: the first, where a group of cavalrymen mow down a Comanche tribe, eviscerating them gruesomely; the next, wherein Tonto and our ostensible hero John Reid make their escape and see the horse Silver standing atop a tree branch. Comedy!
I can appreciate that, in some kind of subversive fashion, Gore Verbinski and his screenwriters, Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio, are critiquing the establishment that viciously won the West and transformed it into something livable as opposed to a wild, untamed landscape. I get that. But it doesn’t work, as admirable as the attempt may be. The funny thing is, in watching this Blu-ray’s quintet of special features (I am, no joke, shocked there are that many, considering this film’s toxic word-of-mouth and poor box office reception), none of that is apparent. There’s no commentary track, just three making-of featurettes, a blooper reel without any bloopers, and a deleted scene. And the overriding theme of those featurettes is that, finally, we will get an answer as to where all that money went. The final reported budget for The Lone Ranger was anywhere from $215 to $260 million, and as I watched Armie Hammer’s road trip around the Southwest, or the short look into the cowboy training camp the actors went through, or the detailed look at how much work went into the train-based action sequences, I was both impressed and a bit sad.
Take the “Riding the Rails with The Lone Ranger” featurette, in which the cast and crew walk us through, on a large scale, how the big sequences were pulled off. No surprise, of course, that CGI was used, but what did legitimately shock me was how some of the moments were filmed. There weren’t enough actual train tracks to use, and instead of building ones, the train sets were put on the beds of large semi-trucks, which whizzed down the highway, one set being filmed by the crew, on a semi-truck of their own. So, yeah, it’s kind of cool how Verbinski and friends pulled that off. And no question, the action sequences are very impressive, among the best of the year. But as I listened to these people talking so passionately about creating something in place of the real McCoy, I thought of John Hammond’s fervor at every little aspect of Jurassic Park. I was, in effect, waiting for Gore Verbinski or Jerry Bruckheimer to say that they’d spared no expense. And that much is true: Disney spent a lot of money on this movie, and it’s easy to see it on the screen. All that high budget contributes to, sadly, is a sense of unstoppable excess.
It comes, as I said, as no surprise that The Lone Ranger Blu-ray is just a bit more than a bare-bones effort from Disney’s home media division. Sure, its worldwide take—just over $260 million—is more than most of us may see in our lifetimes, but seeing as that’s the high end of the estimated budget (excluding a marketing budget that’s said to top $100 million), it’s kind of a shame. Also kind of a shame: that people made up their minds about The Lone Ranger before it was released. Unlike some of my esteemed colleagues—friend of the show Peter Labuza (and even he has reservations), or RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz—I can’t say that I like The Lone Ranger on the whole, but some of its parts are exciting enough that the whole is almost worth watching. But if you rent this, or buy it on a whim, and you get the urge to fast-forward from one train setpiece to the next, I wouldn’t tell you that’s a bad idea.
– Josh Spiegel