In classic Westerns, the hero rides off into the sunset, but in “The Lone Ranger,” it’s Tonto we see shambling off toward Monument Valley as the credits roll. No longer simply the sidekick, Tonto gets top billing in Disney’s extravagant but exhausting reboot, whose vaguely revisionist origin story partners a heavily face-painted Johnny Depp with the blandly handsome Armie Hammer. Directed by “Pirates of the Caribbean’s” Gore Verbinski, this over-the-top oater delivers all the energy and spectacle audiences have come to expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but sucks out the fun in the process, ensuring sizable returns but denying the novelty value required to support an equivalent franchise.
It’s a testament to Depp’s Lon Chaney-like ability to reinvent himself from role to role that so much of Bruckheimer’s quarter-of-a-billion-dollar gamble rides on whether he can bring some of that Jack Sparrow mojo to Hollywood’s most iconic Injun. Certainly, Depp plays Tonto as no one else could, borrowing the look of the character from Kirby Sattler’s painting “I Am Crow” by interpreting a bird flying directly above the head of a noble Native American as a strange sort of headdress.
This odd hat proves to be Tonto’s only distinguishing feature when a 12-year-old Lone Ranger fan discovers him tucked away, half-forgotten in a San Francisco sideshow tent. The year is 1933, months after the radio series began its popular run (Tonto did not appear until the 11th episode), and the “noble savage” (Depp, virtually unrecognizable beneath heavy “Little Big Man”-style makeup) offers to set the record straight about John Reid’s legendary exploits some six decades earlier.
Tonto’s tale doesn’t alter the key elements of Lone Ranger mythology so much as it expands them, beginning with an unexpected memory of the masked lawman sticking up a bank. While this scene is certainly inconsistent with Reid’s goody-goody radio-show image, it assumes that audiences know or care enough about the character to wait nearly two-and-a-half hours to discover why the Old West’s ultimate white-hat hero would break the law.
Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe might have saved an entire reel’s worth of screentime by diving directly into the pic’s first setpiece, during which bandits manage to derail an inbound train carrying the dastardly Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) to the gallows. Embellished by herds of virtual buffalo and other CG touches, this stunning, mostly practical sequence serves to introduce Tonto, Reid and the other key players — including railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), older brother/model ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) and soon-to-be-widowed sister-in-law Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) — and helps to bookend an adventure that climaxes aboard another runaway train.
In keeping with Elliott and Rosso’s “Pirates” formula, the intervening plot proves far more complicated than such archetypal material demands, and as such is likely to alienate younger viewers who may already be overwhelmed by the intensity of Verbinski’s vision. The Lone Ranger may refuse to fire a gun unless absolutely necessary, but the film hardly shares his pacifist philosophy, its abundant carnage ranging from scary carnivorous rabbits to an ambush in which Butch kills half a dozen Texas Rangers and finishes the job by eating Dan Reid’s heart.
Having proved his acting chops in “Billy: The Early Years” and “The Social Network,” Hammer offers a more uneven performance here. Alternating between silly and serious, Hammer verges on slapstick at times in his portrayal of an effete, Ivy League-educated lawyer (the only character here remotely concerned with dental hygiene) who requires Tonto’s coaching to unlock his inner heroism and exact revenge for his brother’s murder.
As in “Pirates,” such a vanilla protag is typically the least compelling personality onscreen (which explains why Orlando Bloom was edged aside as the series went on), though Fichtner’s villain is no match for Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa or Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones. Likewise, Wilson displays nary an ounce of Keira Knightley’s empowerment, evidently content to play the damsel in distress, while it’s never quite clear what Helena Bonham Carter — looking as if she stumbled in from the nearest Tim Burton set — is doing here, playing a crimson-haired madam whose false leg conceals a double-barreled shotgun. As for the rest of this motley ensemble, Verbinski did a better job of distinguishing between scraggly Western henchmen in his 2011 animated neo-oater “Rango.”
Naturally, audiences will look to Depp to pick up the slack, though this time, the star’s eccentricities seem more calculated — and ultimately less amusing — than before. With his bone-white face separated by four vertical black streaks, Tonto certainly looks distinctive, though his very appearance is what disguises the inherently Depp-like appeal of the character. Whether offering birdseed to his crow-hat or conning gullible white men into unfair trades (an amusing reversal on history), the actor’s bow-legged, pidgin-speaking Tonto needs more dynamism to register through all that makeup.
Tonto and Reid are further dwarfed by the sheer scale of the unwieldy action unfolding around them. To see these two heroes framed against vistas made famous by the likes of John Ford brings a swell of all-American pride, though it’s easy to lose the characters amid the intricate, hyper-detailed production design that has become such a Verbinski-Bruckheimer signature. This team builds things just to blow them up, and by the film’s climax — which juggles several high-peril situations aboard two criss-crossing locomotives, including the sight of Reid riding his “spirit horse,” Silver, atop a train — what began as an elegantly epic, potentially realistic retelling of the Lone Ranger legend has devolved into Wile E. Coyote-style cartoon shenanigans.