The Lone Ranger rides in on Blu-ray on December 17 and I’m betting it finds considerably more fans than it did in theaters. Co-produced by Verbinski and his Pirates cohort Jerry Bruckheimer, Ranger is a sweeping visual tribute to the American Southwest, teeming with beautifully-photographed landscapes of the sandy, red rock deserts of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Despite the boatload of CG effects that helped swell the budget to an ungodly amount (estimates place the productions costs anywhere from $215-250 million), this is an old-fashioned Western at heart. While that may have been a strike against it from a commercial standpoint, it’s only one of several positive aspects of the film.
Though hampered by a clunky and unnecessary Little Big Man-esque framing device, The Lone Ranger is an entertaining action flick when taken at face value. We see the origins of lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) as he slowly transitions from a milquetoast pacifist to the infamous masked man. Both Reid and Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Comanche Native American with a tragic backstory, are after the Cavendish gang. John’s more outwardly brave and heroic brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), is responsible for Butch Cavendish’s (William Fichtner) capture. But right from the outset, the naïve John manages to accidently free Butch, along with Tonto (both of whom were prisoners being transported on the same train). Attempts to recapture the vile, cannibalistic Butch make up the main thrust of Ranger, but we also have a parallel crisis involving railroad magnate Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) who seeks to build a railway right through Comanche territory.
About that framing device, it’s one of the most detrimental elements of what is ultimately an overstuffed plot. When we first meet Tonto, the year is 1933. He’s working as a sideshow display at a museum. Will (Mason Cook), a young fan of the legendary Lone Ranger, skeptically listens to the elderly Tonto spin what is probably a heavily-embellished tale. Essentially, the whole movie is an elaborate flashback. It wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the decision to return to the 1933 setting numerous times throughout the film—especially distracting when it happens in the middle of an action sequence. But that annoyance aside, Verbinski stages some extremely effective action set pieces.
As for the casting, Armie Hammer makes an agreeably earnest, square-jawed Lone Ranger. Best known for his dual role as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, he was an incredibly brave choice as the lead of such a high-risk production. Of course, Hammer ends up playing second fiddle to Depp’s Tonto. The decision to cast a Caucasian actor to portray a Native American was arguably the biggest blunder of all. Obviously Depp was cast for his star power and his longstanding association with Bruckheimer and Verbinski via the Pirates franchise. But this role should’ve gone to an actual Native American actor. That said (and it is a very significant caveat), Depp manages to be quite funny as the perpetually mournful Tonto, whose childhood folly led his tribe to a very unfortunate fate.
In the end, The Lone Ranger is an audacious action adventure that offers fun and thrills, but also suffers from jarring tonal shifts. From Butch’s vicious, bare-handed removal of another man’s heart (not explicitly show onscreen, but unmistakably conveyed nonetheless) to a scalping witnessed by a John’s young nephew, Danny (Bryant Prince), there is arguably too much violence for this to be truly acceptable as a family film (this one earns its PG-13). It’s kind of a schizophrenic experience, witnessing the lighthearted camaraderie between John and Tonto, the awkward romantic motif that develops between John and his brother’s wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), and the rather serious exploits of the rich barons who rape the land’s natural resources and take advantage of the indigenous people. As a big budget lark, Ranger is fine if you don’t think about it too much.
No deep thought is required to appreciate the high definition excellence of Disney’s Blu-ray presentation. Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography, a seamless combination of 35mm film and digital, is always pleasing to the eye. The appropriately earthy color scheme isn’t varied enough to dazzle, but the transfer has fine detail to spare. From Tonto’s caked-on face paint to the layers of old age makeup he’s plastered with during the 1933 segments, textures are extremely realistic. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack is, if anything, even more impressive. This is a remarkably immersive mix, with tons of activity emanating from all channels. Great technical work all around, which makes sense considering the film’s massive budget.
Perhaps because of the generally indifferent box office reaction, Disney has gone rather light on extras. There’s a trio of short, behind-the-scenes featurettes: “Armie’s Western Roadtrip” (15 minutes), “Riding the Rails” (11 minutes), and “Becoming a Cowboy” (8 minutes). We also get a deleted scene (with unfinished effects work) and a blooper reel.
The Lone Ranger is a costly folly that did favors for no one involved. But when separated from the reams of bad press, it’s easy to enjoy as escapism and far from the worst mega-budget action film in recent memory.