Black mask? Check. White horse? Check. Silver bullets? Check. Trusted Comanche sidekick? Well, I wouldn’t call him trusted, nor is he really a sidekick, but what the heck: Check! Actually, this revisiting of the classic 1950s TV series has very little else to do with said TV series.
For one thing, this exciting and at times almost epic Western is really more of a comedy. It’s as if the filmmakers were initially big fans of Sergio Leone’s massive spaghetti Westerns, but they then got a look at Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and decided to fuse those two very different entities together. Surprise! It works!
Well, most of it works. Director Gore Verbinski, who made all of those “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, ruffles the flow of “The Lone Ranger” by saddling it (sorry, Western reference) with a gimmick that hasn’t succeeded for others, and doesn’t for him.
The film begins in 1933 San Francisco, where a certain bridge is seen, partially built, and a young boy, wearing a black mask, visits a Wild West exhibit. As he stares at a life-size diorama, the Noble Savage within comes alive, and proceeds to tell him the story of himself and his Texas Ranger friend, the only survivor of an ambush in 1869. The story plays out, but the film keeps returning to these two characters, just as “The Princess Bride” and “The NeverEnding Story” did.
It’s distracting, but not terribly so. In fact, it’s hard to be distracted from the sprawling and surprisingly funny story.
The vile criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) is being brought by train to Colby, Texas, where he will hang. Chained up next to him in a baggage car is the Comanche Indian we will later find out is Tonto (Johnny Depp, who disappears into the role).
Up front, in the comfy seats, is John Reid (Armie Hammer), a district attorney who is returning home to be the new country prosecutor and to reunite with his sheriff brother Dan Reid (the chameleonic James Violent mayhem and slapstick comedy join together on the train, the bad guy gets away, Dan Reid and his Rangers (including the newly deputized John) go after them, but ride into an ambush, leaving only one man – John – alive. That would make him the Lone Ranger.
And that would open the door for John and Tonto, who comes up with the idea of the mask, to hook up to seek justice, or maybe revenge is a better word for it. But oddly, John and Tonto really don’t like each other, and while John regularly sends verbal snipes Tonto’s way, Tonto is happy to wax philosophical in return. Because this is a comedy, it makes sense that Tonto and Silver, the “white spirit horse” who arrives out of nowhere, are much closer. And it’s a real treat to watch Tonto and Silver do some shtick.
Other stories that feel kind of tacked on include one about Dan’s wife and son, a coming war caused by both political and business reasons, and a completely unnecessary visit to a local brothel, where Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter) is the madam.
Verbinski’s strongest points are that he’s able to keep the action and stunts so wild and crazy. Depp shows off some great subtle physical comedy to go along with his mocking little side remarks. Hammer gives us a brave Lone Ranger, but his acting is a little too proper, maybe even a bit prissy.
The huge set piece of a climax features a double train chase that’s fraught with peril and heroics and, why not, a horse thundering across the top of one of the moving trains. It goes on too long and should have been tightened in the editing. But it’s also funny and exciting, and it is something we’ve never seen before.
• “The Lone Ranger” is written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio; and directed by Gore Verbinski. The cast includes Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, William Fichtner and Helena Bonham Carter. The film is rated PG-13.