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In Defense of … ‘The Lone Ranger’

Was it a good idea? Bringing a legendary radio/serial/TV western hero back to the big screen for a generation of kids raised on a glut of Marvel superhero movies? (Incidentally, Universal attempted to resurrect the character in 1981, but it’s long forgotten.) No. Admittedly, it was a bad idea.

Kids don’t care about westerns, and they already know lots of masked heroes. Likewise, a Lone Ranger movie tailored to grownups doesn’t sound quite right either. So Disney, being Disney, split the difference and made one of 2013′s most pissed-on movies. Why they did it, we may never know, but the way they did it at least earns some credit for its internal logic.

Get Gore Verbinski, who managed to squeeze a pretty decent movie trilogy out of a Disney World ride(!) with the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, cast ‘Pirates’ veteran Johnny Depp in a leading role and pitch it as a movie audiences of all ages will love. After all, no one knew kids gave a s— about pirates, but that gamble paid off in spades. ‘The Lone Ranger,’ which is infinitely more coherent and better acted, was not so lucky.

The most oft-heard criticisms of ‘Ranger’ were that it was tonally inconsistent and too violent for kids. As a viewer who didn’t like the movie but loved it, I’ve watched it several times since its initial release and am always left wondering: Who the hell was this movie made for? Considering the reception it received, I’m left to presume it was made for me! (Thanks, Disney!)

I wouldn’t dare compare ‘Ranger’ to another little action-adventure movie you may have heard of called … ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (not out loud anyway). But there are some important parallels here worth looking at to shoot down most critics’ primary gripes.

What exactly does tonally inconsistent mean as applied here? ‘Raiders’ is as funny (“Why did it have to be snakes?”) as it is action packed (Nazi truck fight) as it is dramatic (“Marion’s dead”). Most swashbucklin’ movies attempt to balance these elements and, despite what you’ve heard, ‘The Lone Ranger’ pulls it off. It doesn’t jump back and forth between slapstick and action. It blends them … like an Indiana Jones mov– … All right, now you look like you’re going to hit me. Moving on!

Violent? Sure it is, but I’ll leave it to you to decide which is more gruesome: an exploding Frenchman’s head flanked by two melting Nazis (‘Raiders’) or a guy ripping out another guy’s heart and eating it? — out of frame, by the way (‘Ranger’). So — poof! — there goes that argument.

The story is complex but not complicated — streamlined but not rushed. ‘Ranger’ presents us with John Reid (Armie Hammer) a milquetoast lawyer whose brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a well-respected, tough-as-nails Texas ranger. After being deputized to hunt down a notorious killer (William Fichtner, who is always awesome) by his elder brother, John joins the band of lawmen and is left for dead, the sole survivor of a deep canyon ambush.

John is found and saved by disgraced ex-Comanche, Tonto, who enlists him to track down the same villain responsible for Dan’s murder. The by-the-book lawyer wants justice, but Tonto, for reasons of his own, wants revenge. Tonto is convinced that Reid is a “spirit walker,” which means he can’t be killed in battle. And since he’s already believed to be dead, Tonto suggests that Reid embrace his perceived death, all the better to find his brother’s killer. Of course, Tonto recommends, this requires he wear a mask to obscure Reed’s identity and — tah-dah! — the Lone Ranger.

You might think that lowered expectations are the key to enjoying ‘Ranger,’ but the truth is, had I seen it on opening day without hearing pre-release critical response (I can’t help shake the feeling many critics had their mind made up about this one before it was even released), I would have left the theater expecting it would be huge – a crowd-pleasing blockbuster of the “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” kind.

That said, when I did read reviews after seeing it, I rhetorically asked myself: Did everyone see the same movie I did? I’m still left wondering because, out of all of 2013’s summer blockbusters, ‘The Lone Ranger’ was easily the most ambitious, sincere and sharply directed. Even if you hate everything else about it, you have to admit it’s a beautifully shot, super-stylized classic western, even more so than the much better received ‘Django Unchained.’ (Please note that I did not say ‘The Lone Ranger’ is a better movie than ‘Django.’ So just calm the hell down.)

Also, the action scenes feature some of the best fusion of digital and practical effects committed to screen. ‘Prometheus,’ despite its countless offenses, looks great, but you can still tell what’s smoothly digitized. The action in ‘Ranger’ feels far more organic, and the CG effects only give themselves away when defying physics or showing us something that would be impossible to shoot without a digital assist.

More to the point, the action set pieces are memorable, ambitious and uncluttered. You can actually tell what’s happening to whom and when. There aren’t any bloated effects sequences that become static the moment the good guys and bad guys engage. The action is gritty, well-choreographed and fun to watch (if not completely implausible).

Because the story revolves around the establishment of the first transcontinental railroad, most of the big scenes take place on moving trains. That might sound painfully redundant for audiences, but it’s not, primarily because the masterfully conceived story builds to a crescendo with the stakes changing as our hero emerges. (At its core, ‘Ranger’ is another origin story, but unlike say, Spider-Man’s, it’s not one modern audiences are sick to death of.)

You can take or leave the script’s framing scenes in which an aged Tonto (will anyone ever finally get old-age makeup right?), performing as the “noble savage” in a carnival sideshow, relates the movie’s plot to a little boy. In a popcorn flick with a 150-minute running time, it was probably unnecessary, but there’s a sweetness to it, and some inventive cross-cutting between the present and past that help justify its existence. Also, Depp is really good in these scenes.

And while we’re on the topic of performances, ‘Ranger’ is filled with top-shelf acting. Hammer — a relative newcomer to this kind of movie — has good comedic timing, great chemistry with Depp and plays Reed as a complicated reluctant hero. He doesn’t embrace his alter ego until he realizes he must — a good man forced to be an outlaw when the law turns on him. It’s not exactly fresh as an origin story conceit, but Hammer’s performance makes it feel fresh. If you’re sick of brooding heroes in your action movies, Hammer delivers the goods. He’s essentially the anti-Batman.

Meanwhile, William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson do far more than twirl mustaches and tie women to railroad tracks. They have interesting back stories and motivations more complex than most popcorn movie villains.

So yes, a Lone Ranger movie was a bad idea of ‘Green Hornet’ proportions, and for that it paid the price. The best audience for a new incarnation of an old-timey radio/Saturday-morning serial hero is, well, mostly dead I’m afraid.

Had ‘The Green Hornet’ resisted rewriting its hero’s premise, it could have been another under-appreciated gem I’d bother defending here despite the questions it raises about who greenlights what in the world of major motion pictures. (This would also be especially cool, because John Reid and Britt Reed, a.k.a. the Green Hornet, are blood-related characters from the same radio franchise. The implication, of course, is that masked vigilantism is genetic.)

Finally, a few words about ‘The William Tell Overture.’ Making the omnipresent, irrepressibly memorable tune actually work in a modern movie should be impossible, but this ‘Ranger’ gets that right too. The restraint on display in the very judicious use of the overly familiar song is admirable. You only hear it when you need to hear it. When you really want to hear it. Hans Zimmer, whose work I usually don’t enjoy, does a masterful job of weaving it into a marvelous score. If you check your cynicism at the swinging saloon doors and connect with the spirit of ‘The Lone Ranger,’ that simple melody might even give you goosebumps.

Next: In Defense of Neil Young's 'Trans'

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