In a scene from Disney’s The Lone Ranger, both Tonto (Johnny Depp) and John Reid (Armie Hammer) are buried up to their necks in dirt. “This is a good day to die,” Tonto mutters to his cowboy companion.
Tonto’s line echoes Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) in the 1970 Western Little Big Man. But that’s the trouble with Disney’s extravagant reboot of the classic Lone Ranger radio and TV series: its tiresome Western movie clichés along with a jumbled script and perverse violence combine to deliver an incoherent two-and-a-half-hour tale. The Lone Ranger does have moments of fun and entertainment, but its abundant references to other classic Westerns—from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West—suggest that the filmmakers are groping for ideas of how to resurrect a lifeless genre.
But perhaps even more troublesome is that The Lone Ranger is a Johnny Depp fest gone awry. The actor is also one of the film’s executive producers, which prompted the Hollywood Reporter to remark that studios take a big risk when they entrust celebrity talent with too much authority over their own movies. With The Lone Ranger, Depp’s antics as Tonto are just too self-serving to make this revisionist-minded Western work.
The Lone Ranger begins with a flashback from Tonto’s point of view (another reference to Little Big Man). But the Indian hero is now old and feeble and relegated to a museum piece in a carnival sideshow. He recounts the story of how he joined Texas Ranger John Reid to battle bad guys Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). The cast also includes the flamboyant dance-hall madam Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter) whose prosthetic leg hides a double-barreled shotgun.
Oddly enough, this Disney PG-13 rated film features a ghastly scene when the villainous Cavendish kills Reid’s brother, cuts out his heart, and eats it. Cavendish is supposed to be a Wendigo, a cannibalistic spirit of the Eastern Woodlands tribes. One wonders how this spirit found its way into Texas Comanche Territory.
The movie’s attempts at humor backfire when scenes of charred remains of a Comanche village slaughtered by U.S. troops (resembling Little Big Man’s Cheyenne massacre) are juxtaposed to Tonto’s stone-faced warrior furiously pumping a railroad handcart (a reference to Buster Keaton in The General). Other scenes of painted warriors dancing around a fire yelping and whooping recall stereotypical images of blood-thirsty warriors.
Tonto gets plenty of screen time to show he’s more than just a sidekick, although his occasional pidgin English undermines his noble stature. But with the dead bird propped atop his head, his face covered with cracked and painted clay, and a nose bridge meant to give him “more of a Native American profile” (according to the movie’s make-up artist Joel Harlow), this Tonto really looks more like Captain Jack Sparrow gone Native rather than an honorable warrior. After all, this movie was supposed to be a classic story from the Native American point of view, at least according to Depp and director Gore Verbinski.
Based upon The Lone Ranger’s dismal box office returns—only $48.9 million for the five-day weekend—this movie should quickly fade into the sunset. Still, Disney might find consolation with Old Lodge Skins’ memorable line from Little Big Man: “Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”