TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The characters of the masked ex-Texas lawman known as The Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto, began in radio in the 1930s but are best known for the TV series that ran new episodes from 1949 to 1957. They're together again in the big-budget Disney film "The Lone Ranger," which reunites Johnny Depp and his "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Rango" director, Gore Verbinski.
Film critic, David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: We're at the point when Johnny Depp's dumbest whims can lead to movies costing $200 million. I imagine Depp lying in a hammock on his private island and saying: I've always wanted to play Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows," and it's done. Then he says I've always wanted to do "The Lone Ranger," but as Tonto, and it too gets the green light.
Depp's movies open big in the U.S., and more important in international markets, which today account for close to 80 percent of Hollywood's profits, and they have the potential in Hollywood-speak to be highly franchisable, like Depp's pirate films, which have made billions. I don't want to suggest that Depp himself is purely money-minded.
His biggest role models are Hunter Thompson and Marlon Brando, both of whom portrayed their lives of pathological self-indulgence as subversive, countercultural hipsterism. Depp worked with Brando in a not very good movie called "Don Juan DeMarco," which inspired Depp to leap to the weird late-Brando mode of method hamming without passing through the early Brando genius that remains the high point of film acting.
Depp has also followed the lead of Brando in making a cause of the maltreatment of Native Americans, so his Lone Ranger is conceived as a subversive epic. The one-time sidekick is now the true master and moral force. He's only a sidekick because in both 19th century Texas and 20th century Hollywood, where The Lone Ranger character originated, the hero had to be white.
In this movie, his people are victims of murderous colonialists, men who run railroads through their native lands and kill off resistance. And what's sold is a broad comedy that reunites Depp with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" director, Gore Verbinski; features massacres of Native American tribes. The move is exhaustingly bad but bad in ways you can't imagine in advance.
Armie Hammer plays the title role, first known as John Reid. At the start, he's a law-abiding attorney who journeys to Texas in 1869 to help his brother - a real ranger - prosecute such criminals as the Indian killer, Butch Cavendish. Veteran actor, William Fichtner, plays Cavendish who's so massively disfigured by a knife wound that his face is as twisted as his soul.
But there's something even creepier about Tom Wilkinson's railroad executive, who wants, in the name of progress, to run a railroad through Comanche land. For one thing, he dotes a little too much on the sheriff's wife, Rebecca, played by Ruth Wilson. The core of the film, of course, is the banter between Reid and Tonto, whom Depp plays as a somewhat more dignified Captain Jack Sparrow but with a dead crow affixed to his head that he constantly feeds.
There's a lot of drawn out Butch and Sundance banter among the shooting and falling, as in this stretch, atop a speeding train in which the pair are chained together.
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EDELSTEIN: Depp isn't trying to play a true Native American. He acts more in the showbiz ethnic tradition of Brando's Japanese interpreter in the appalling "Teahouse of the August Moon." And he sounds to me like a turn of the last century Yiddish actor doing Shakespeare. The film is almost two and a half hours and like most of Verbinski's pictures, it has about six climaxes.
Verbinski, like Depp, is a student of Buster Keaton. His busy, high velocity action sequences are often very witty, with Rube Goldberg-like successions of contraptions that send our heroes hurtling. But you see the visual punch lines coming seconds, even minutes, in advance. Verbinski has no dash. The bigger problem is that he mixes high jinx with sadism and seems oddly desensitized to the horror of what he's showing.
He uses carnage for kicks. In the 1970 film, "Little Big Man," Arthur Penn used a comic tall tale tone to tell a story that built to the genocide of Native Americans. The mix didn't work, but it was true to the bleak, absurdist spirit of the '60s, which began with the novel "Catch 22" and got even darker. "The Lone Ranger" combines Depp's shallow, liberal, seriousness with "Pirates of the Caribbean" slapstick spectacle, and the upshot is horrible.
It's like "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" adapted into a Disney theme-park ride.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr @nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
I'm Terry Gross.
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