THE LONE RANGER is a good film. Perhaps a VERY good film.
And I almost didn’t see it.
During my depression, when the joy went out of watching movies and I wasn’t going to the cinema, I mostly wasn’t reading all that much about film either. Just a little (old habits die hard) and most consistently, Drew McWeeny over at Hitfix.
Not least because, in the darkest days of my depression, the podcast he does with Scott Swan was one of the things that kept me sane. It touched that core place that my love of film was born from, and it touched the tone of passion, excitement and joy that watching movies had always been about for me. It was a lifeline to a love I feared I’d lost, but through their joy and their excitement, and their laughter, I could find my own. Know that it was still there in me somewhere. I’d listen and relisten to their show on the journey to and from work, and it was a relief. I wasn’t worrying about my abilities (or lack thereof) as a husband and a father, I wasn’t stressing about money, or mourning the bookshop I’d been forced to close, I wasn’t pitying myself for having fallen to the shitty job that I now found myself working just to make ends meet. It was just me and Drew and Scott, giggling about film.
So when Drew reviewed Gore Verbinski’s THE LONE RANGER, I paid attention. And I noted that I probably wasn’t going to see this film. Which was a shame, because I liked Verbinksi’s MOUSE HUNT a lot and thought RANGO was just wonderful. I’d liked parts of the Pirates Of The Carribean movies, but never been satisfied by any of them as a whole. And the trailer looked good too.
But Drew HATED it. And I respect Drew’s opinion. He’s one of my favourite film critics. FILM NERD 2.0, his series of articles about sharing movies with his kids, represents – for me – some of the best film writing of the last five or ten years. So when he panned the movie, I gave a sigh and made a note not to waste my time or money on it.
Then in my facebook feed, I caught Devin Faraci’s review over at BADASS DIGEST and he hated it too. Maybe even MORE, and that sealed the deal.
Until the UK reviews started coming in.
And the disparity was fascinating…
Philip French, Anne Billson, Kim Newman and Angie Errigo all had positive responses to the movie. Very positive. Not without reservation or criticism, but nonetheless they were saying that it really was worthwhile seeing.
Now these are all people whose opinions matter to me. Whose tastes overlap with my own. These are people I like and trust.
Suddenly I was keen, excited even, to check this film out for myself. Not sure that I’d like it, I did at least know that what I would be seeing would be interesting.
And I kinda loved it.
Delightful from the off, the pace lags in the latter parts of the 2nd act (where I think most of the sacrifices were made to get the budget down and thus the green light), as the elements of the story all come together, revealing how they all link up and getting into place for the headlong dash to the finish.
And that headlong dash is pretty spectacular. Though I’d reckon on the first 45mins to an hour as being the strongest, as they set up the meandering, richly indulgent shaggy dog story style. Reflective of Tonto’ s cracked and wandering mind – given that he’s the narrator here. When it gets more linear later, it felt like a shame, stepping outside of Tonto’ s skull as it were.
For what it’s worth I LOVE the framing device and especially the way Verbinski and the writers weave it in and out. Depp is a delight as the LITTLE BIG MAN version of Tonto and his interaction with the young boy is great.
The film owes a HUGE amount to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, not least in it’s structure. It’s built in the same way that Once Upon A Time was, in that it is, by design, an amalgam of all the westerns that proceeded it – though the big three are Once Upon A Time, Little Big Man and The General, with more than a touch of Butch and Sundance in there, and a some of the more comical Spaghettis.
I heard a lot from US reviewers about the darker aspect of the film being a worry, or that the comedy and the violence didn’t mix… I’d have to disagree. A man cuts a heart out and eats it, but it’s less graphic than anything in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or TEMPLE OF DOOM. Nothing as graphic or shocking as a man walking into a propeller blade or melting Nazis.
I also heard a lot of complaint from US reviewers that it was about hero’s that were UN-heroic. Again I’d have to disagree. Tonto might (might I say) be cracked in the head, and John Reid (Armie Hammer) may be a buffoon, but both of them are courageous in the face of that. Tonto is capable if comical (Depp is touching on some of the silent comedy he learned for Benny & Joon), a Holy Fool if you will. While Reid is driven by justice and the desire to do the right thing (notably he does not give in to personal vengeance). His arc here is to grow from the naive flatfoot of the begining to the capable (if still a little comically straight laced) hero he is at the end.
This is an origin story – again something I read complaints of elsewhere. But given that the character does NOT hold any cache for a young audience, what else could the story be? And more than that, did US reviewers MISS the ending? *SPOILERS* as Tonto vanishes (walks into the painted backdrop? Into Art? Into Myth? Into Story? and hence immortality?) the young boy walks away inspired by heroism. Inspired to be better, and to aim higher. And the ‘dead’ crow from Tonto’s head – not dead but ‘waiting for spirit to return’ – hops onto a rock and takes flight, right toward the boy, toward camera, toward the audience, almost as if to fly off the screen… the ‘spirit’ has returned and taken flight. The very spirit that many US reviewers complained was missing in the film – the simple old fashioned heroism, and spirit of adventure that they applauded in PACIFIC RIM – is in fact the film’s raison d’etre. It’s the whole fucking point.
I wish the film had been longer. I suspect that longer, it would have felt correctly paced and more fullfilling. I do tend to believe that when a film is paced right, no audience ever minds, because the tale is being told properly and well. But try to cut it short and it starts to feel off. And there’s a bit of that here. That 2nd act lag I mentioned. It’s notable that not enough seems made of the ‘wendigo’ angle, and that Ruth Wilson and Helena Bonham Carter – though they both shine in the film – seem visible just enough to make the tale work. But not enough for us to really get involved with them. Both do sterling work here. As does Barry Pepper and a host of supporting actors who likewise feel a little underused.
Think about Once Upon a Time in The West… it was cut down at first too. And if you’ve ever seen the shortened version, you know it feels wrong. It’s full of great things, but it doesn’t quite work. But see the longer cut (the fullest available, if not quite Leone’s original intention) and it SINGS. And a long film, doesn’t feel long. It flies by. I can’t count the times I’ve sat down just thinking I’ll watch the opening scene and found myself an hour in before i blinked, because it is so perfectly cut and paced. The first 45mins to and hour of RANGER felt the same. Then it came a little unstuck. Full of great things, and still hanging together, but missing that – admitedly quite gentle – pacing from the beginning. Where we were enjoying the way it meandered, certain that it was heading somewhere specific, and intrigued to see how it would find it’s way.
That final headlong rush seems an extended homage to Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL. And though it is spectacular… nothing beats Keaton.
I suspect there was more about silver and the ‘wendigo’ aspect at some point. And I loved the use of reflections. I need to see it again to note it thematically, but it seems connected to idea of soul. We see Dan Reid’s heart removed and eaten only as reflection in John Reid’s eye. Verbinski then consistently returns to image of reflections e.g. in mechanical eye of a camera lens at the completion of railway… which marks destruction of native Americans and thus consumption of the soul of the country? It’s a rich film. Compromised I think, but doing something genuinely interesting and quite unusual for a mainstream summer movie.
Everyone involved should be proud of their work here. It isn’t perfect, but it is such a charming mix of slightly daffy humour and solid action adventure. And perhaps most importantly it has a genuinely gentle heart.
That’s what the framing story is all about. In fact, now I think of it, the framing device and the main story reflect each other. Tonto helping/inspiring a ‘wide eyed innocent’ in both aspects.
Oh, and for the record, anyone else think that kid in the framing story is a dead ringer for a young Paul Reubens?