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The Lone Ranger (2013)

It's Lone at the Bottom

The Lone Ranger may be the best summer movie you'll never see. Gore Verbinski's bold, quarter-billion-dollar take on a classic Western got pummeled last weekend, and newer, shinier objects Pacific Rim and Grown-Ups 2 are on course to plow full-steam ahead through the wreckage. Much like the titular, left-for-dead lawman seeking justice in a land full of criminals, I've awoken from a week-long slumber to defend this film against uninformed cynicism.

These are desperate times, and I understand that no amount of plot re-hashing or hyperbole will persuade you to give The Lone Ranger a chance. What might work is rebutting some of the unfair criticisms that have been lobbed at it. So here goes:

1. "It's Too Long!" The first time I heard this, I wondered just how far Disney had pushed the boundaries of acceptable Summer Movie run-times. Certainly, our collective limits have been tested this season, with over-long CGI spectacles like Star Trek: Into Darkness (2 hours, 9 minutes), Fast & Furious 6 (2 hours, 10 minutes) The Great Gatsby (2 hours, 23 minutes), and Man of Steel (2 hours, 28 minutes).

Indeed, The Lone Ranger is the lengthiest by far, clocking in at an ungodly, unforgivable...2 hours and 29 minutes.

Think of all the amazing things you could have accomplished with that extra sixty seconds by not watching the licensed-music portion of the end credits! You might have, for example, come up with a valid reason to not like the movie you'd just watched.

2. "It's Just Pirates of the Caribbean in the Old West!" The Lone Ranger has these things in common with the Pirates series: director Gore Verbinski, actor Johnny Depp, and the Walt Disney Company. It's also a historical fantasy that swaps high-seas piracy for frontier-era railroad schemes, but the parallels end there. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is not Will Turner, and Tonto (Depp) is not Jack Sparrow--despite how hard the awful trailers might have tried to sell that angle.

Reid is a complex character who spends most of the film fighting against a destiny driven by family, friends, and circumstance. He begins as a letter-of-the-law attorney and gets roped into joining a posse headed up by his older brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger. On their way to apprehending psychopathic, human-heart-eating criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), the gang is ambushed; only John survives (kind of), aided by a mysterious Comanche drifter who believes the younger Reid to be a spiritually gifted warrior. Tonto has his own score to settle with Cavendish, and the pair set out reluctantly to bring the outlaw to different kinds of justice.

Sure, the leads have a comedic rapport, but Depp isn't the whole show this time. Hammer more than holds his own, and paints a smart, deeply sensitive character whose ideas about the world outside academia are challenged at every turn. Both characters' humor is underscored by a stirring pathos that doesn't belong in a "big, dumb Summer movie". Writers Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio strike a near-perfect balance between laughs, drama, and high-stakes adventure (which is what happens, I guess, when you team up the Pirates guys with the writer of Revolutionary Road).

3. "It's offensive that Johnny Depp Plays a Native American stereotype! Boycott! Boycott!" First off, it is unclear how much of Depp's lineage is Native American (if at all). He has said that he "may" have some Cherokee or Creek blood, which indicates that he doesn't spend that much time thinking about it. And neither should you, unless you have the kind of free time that allows for such self-righteous non-crusades--in which case, I can't imagine you spend that much time at the movies to begin with.

Second, it's not like James Franco was cast as Martin Luther King, Jr. And even if he was, so what? When Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in 2007's I'm Not There, no one accused her of misandry--so why is Depp being (indirectly) called a racist? Maybe if his Tonto only said "How" and paraded around the screen doing rain dances while swigging whiskey and scalping white men, these armchair fanatics might have a point. But Tonto is one of the richest, darkest characters I've seen in a blockbuster in quite awhile. He's the Keyser Soze of The Lone Ranger, a man whose secrets not only stop the movie dead in its tracks and force it to reboot half-way through, but also ask the audience to reconsider what it knows about the two main characters.

4. "Summer Audiences Don't Care About Westerns!" They didn't care about pirate movies until The Curse of the Black Pearl, either. Next...

5. "They Should've Just Called it Tonto!" Another armchair criticism from people who didn't bother to watch the movie. Yes, Depp was the focal point of much of The Lone Ranger's marketing--mostly, I'd imagine, because of his draw as a blockbuster star. Getting fans in the door would allow them to not only see Depp do his finest work in years, but also introduce them to Hammer who, by all rights, should have been a major star after this picture. He was great in The Social Network, but really shines here as a classic code hero whose crisis of conscience leads him down the path to vigilantism.

Hammer radiates earnestness and charm, and in his early scenes recalls Christopher Reeve's take on Clark Kent. Unlike the newest incarnation of Superman, however, The Lone Ranger goes out of his way to protect innocent civilians while saving the world. The climactic train chase, set to the William Tell Overture (as interpreted by Hans Zimmer) just about compelled me to cheer. For two hours, I watched as a good man was pushed to his limits and, at the end of his moral and physical rope, decided to fight back against the darkness. For as inevitable an outcome as that may seem for a would-be franchise vehicle, Verbinski and company played their hand wisely, remembering that the characters don't know they're destined to succeed.

I don't mean to imply that The Lone Ranger is perfect. It has flaws, but no more (and far less) than any other flick at the multiplex right now. One late-stage development was completely unnecessary (it turns out the film's villains have more in common than one might have initially thought), and the love story between Reid and his late brother's wife (Ruth Wilson) felt like a great, twisted idea that got shoehorned into a woman-and-child-in-peril sub-plot. I also grew weary of the film's episodic structure towards the middle, but have a feeling things will feel more balanced on subsequent viewings--as can be the case in most any other two-plus-hours film.

Like Speed Racer before it, The Lone Ranger is, I'm afraid, a cool, hard-to-categorize movie that will be appreciated by few and written off by most. Perhaps this is the best outcome for a movie whose sequels might have eventually gone the route of the Pirates franchise. If you happen to find yourself with a few hours to kill this weekend, and can't be bothered to watch robots punch each other or see Adam Sandler cash another paycheck, you might find a surprisingly good time in the auditorium at the end of the hall--the one with tumbleweeds rolling past its door.

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