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Review: Depp & Tonto (and The Lone Ranger, Too)

This review was originally published in my weekly column at Towleroad

If Hollywood has its own wild wild west, a mythic frontier to tame, it is undoubtedly a time rather than a place: Next Summer. And the one after that. Release dates famously come before screenplays and the studios start laying down their tracks to get there: concept, screenplay, pre-production, casting, filming, editing, promotion, release though not usually quite in that sensible artistic order. Budgets often balloon on the way to the imagined gold at the end of the line. Or silver, as is the case with the name of a certain iconic horse, and the coveted metal driving the plot and the literal train tracks in the new version of THE LONE RANGER.

Hollywood hasn't revived this particular franchise in over 30 years, for what one assumes are three reasons: westerns have been notoriously difficult sells for modern mainstream audiences; the last time they attempted this franchise, it failed; and the Tonto character opens you up to charges of racism and cultural insensitivity in modern times. But if anyone could revive this dead franchise and skirt these issues, the thinking went, wouldn't it be director Gore Verbinski and his masses-beloved star Johnny Depp (rumored to have some sort of Cherokee heritage, and adopted into the Comanche Nation last year) who together did the impossible 10 years ago in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, making a well reviewed, Oscar-nominated, mega-blockbuster out of a famous amusement park ride while also navigating another even more notoriously pricey and difficult to sell outmoded genre: the pirate movie!

The director and star aren't so lucky this time around. [more]

The film's signature image might say it all. Every five minutes or so (which is to say about 30 times given the interminable running time) Johnny Depp reaches up to pour seed onto the dead bird that crowns his Tonto costume. The seed falls pitifully to the ground, ungobbled. The bird is dead but Tonto, for his part, never seems to notice. When other characters point out the obvious deadness of this animal, he waves their concern aside as temporary inconvenience rather than fact. That's as great a metaphor as any for where we are in Johnny Depp's career. Johnny Depp is just going to keep doing this shtick absently, and forever, though we're long past the point of it being nutritious. One day, if we're to believe Tonto, the bird will fly again; the depressing monotony of its current state will be but a memory.

But can Depp the actor ever rise like a phoenix from the moneyed ash of his career?

His Crowning Achievements (Chronologically): 1990's Edward Scissorhands; 1994's Ed Wood; 1997's Donnie Brasco; 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean

The mega-star's increasingly cartoonish persona should not disguise the fact that he was once one of the world's most brilliant actors. Years of repeating Jack Sparrow (more films are planned) and derivations thereof in Sparrow's lesser cousins (Sweeney Todd, Willy Wonka, The Mad Hatter) shouldn't cloud our memories of the lighting-in-a-bottle surprise of his original blockbuster. Pirates of the Caribbean began Johnny Depp's A List mega-millions phase but it was actually the peak rather than the breakthrough of his imagination and creativity as a film star. From his doubled feature debut in 1990 with John Waters' Cry Baby and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, two very different performances that were nevertheless perfectly pitched and styled for the comedy and pathos of their films, through his delusional cross-dresser in Ed Wood up to and including more recognizably human characters like troubled undercover agent Donnie Brasco and bumbling curious Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, Johnny Depp was delivering fresh, often great and non-repetitive film performances for a good dozen plus years.

The behemoth success of the now immortal Jack Sparrow character ended the risk-taking. That's an ironic fate given the now famous resistance he encountered to that performance by Disney executives viewing it in dailies and rough cuts who worried that it was just too weird, too fey, and too out there to work for the family crowd.

But back to Tonto.

The problems with The Lone Ranger are regrettably more mundane than the odd predicament of Johnny Depp's rutted career. The movie never commits to being any one particular kind of thing in direct contract to the original Pirates which so loved the dead swashbuckler genre that it wasn't just embracing its corpse but humping it lustfully back to life. The Lone Ranger, in direct contrast, seems at least uninvested in the western and even a little embarrassed about itself as in its instant disposable of The Lone Ranger's "Hi-Yo, Silver. Away!" catchphrase (mocked rather than revived) and the way it keeps crushing the fun and laughs with repeated heavy reminders of the Actual Fate of American Indians and violence that's just way too grotesque for a family audience. And it's better not to speak at all of its truly terrible framing device in which Old Tonto tells his story to a little kid in the 1930s which keeps pulling you out of the adventure and must have been a braindead attempt to make it relatable to young kids (guess what, they won't find the 1930s any more relatable than the 1860s!)

See, you have to know who your audience is and The Lone Ranger emphatically doesn't. There is no check box marked "ALL!" under "Target Audience?" though Hollywood keeps trying to write one in. Films which appeal to everyone are beautiful flukes and they only achieve this universal reward by being the very best specific thing they set out to be. Despite a sparkling supporting cast (notably William Fictner, James Badge Dale, Tom Wilkinson and Helena Bonham-Carter who is now contractually obligated to appear in every Johnny Depp picture) and handsome sets the film rarely thrills. For the rousing well mounted finish "The William Tell Overture" finally kicks in (replacing the too earnest Hans Zimmer score) and a crazy, and fun action setpiece on a speeding train commences. But by then the movie's already lost in the wilderness. The Lone Ranger rides swiftly past Comanche Territory and into Who Cares Country long before this final act. That's a country that no mega-budgeted summer release ever hopes to get lost in. And there's only a dead bird to guide it. 

John Reid (Armie Hammer) is having a very rough time in "The Lone Ranger"

Grade: C-
Oscar Chances: Most of the craft categories outside of the costuming and makeup categories require big box office for traction (weird but mostly true) and since Oscar has been very unkind to Costume Designer Penny Rose, snubbing her for much greater work than this, the film's only chance is probably in Makeup and Hairstyling. 

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Reader Comments (23)

This is one of the kinder reviews I've read.

I'm not going to see this, probably in any format. I love the old Lone Ranger serials and westerns in general and don't appreciate it when they try and make them into Transformers clones. The trailer put me off so much I'm not even sure rave reviews would have gotten me there.

July 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry O.

I have no interest in the movie, the trailer looked terrible. It is truly a shame what has happened to Depp's reputation even if he has been a willing participant. I've never been a huge fan but he worked so hard to be taken seriously when he left 21 Jump Street and succeed and then chucked it all away. Even if he stuck to the big budget money train and did small challenging films in between as Brad Pitt does that might enable his rep to retain some patina of stature. Instead he does the cash grab lazy performances which puts him in with Tom Cruise and Will Smith, when was the last time either of them did anything resembling challenging work on screen?

July 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

TONTO: The Man in Front of the Mask, 1st biography of the original Tonto, Jay Silverheels, July 19 2013 release, see details on www.realpeopleshistory.com

July 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterzig misiak

I was *thrilled* when Depp won the SAG award for Pirates of the Carribean (though I still think Bill Murray should've won the Oscar that year). But the last decade has neutralized the goodwill enthusiasm, which is such a shame. (Come back to the 2003, Johnny Depp, Johnny Depp.)

On a side note, is this now three strikes for Armie Hammer?

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I absolutely loved this movie, just saw it today and am already to go back! I took my grandsons and we all had such a great time! It was a really fun fun movie... thank you! I am SOOOOOO glad I did not pay any attention to the negative hype our idiot media and the critics are spinning! Thanks Johnny and all for such a great entertaining 2.5 hours! On the way home my younger grandson asked me if it was because of Johnny Depp that I wanted to see the movie.. I thought for a moment and said, you know what, I totally forgot that he was in the movie! He did an awesome job of the Tonto he played... My grandkids loved the movie as much as I did and they were excited telling their Dad about it, they by the way are 11 & 13...

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterInatif

"The Lone Ranger, in direct contrast, seems at least uninvested in the western and even a little embarrassed about itself"

I'm sorry, but this is absolutely, one hundred percent, emphatically wrong. Verbinski's love of the genre, and particularly (though not solely) the work of Sergio Leone, could only have come through more clearly if he superimposed, "I FUCKING LOVE WESTERNS!" across the sky in certain shots. What a bizarre, wildly off base thing to say.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Go see the movie. If you like movies. If you want to dissect films to death, sit at home and read reviews. I've seen the film twice. It is fun and enjoyable. Everyone I've seen it with enjoyed it. And, I will go again.

Ok, so real people's views don't matter like the 'experts'. So, ignore me. . . or, ask your friends and neighbors. And see I ain't the only one.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher

I still have to defend the first Pirates movie, even though its not perfect, its still pretty fun. Even if it has kind of been tainted by the sequels. That alone made me have hope for this but it appears as if I shouldn't bother.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

Roark -- you know i've thought about that sentence a lot after writing it and I will concede that I overstated. But the dissing of its famous catchphrase is what i'm talking about in terms of disrespecting its origin genre/ itself.

I don't think this movie loves the westerns like Pirates love swashbucklers (too diffuse and tonally confused to concentrate on it) but, yeah, perhaps oversated.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

This is a really good review, very fair and insightful. You should have a look at Cayova which is offering $10,000 sponsorship opportunities for skilled bloggers like yourself.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlen Bray

Nathaniel - I agree with you about the "High-o Silver away" moment. Didn't take it to be a rejection of the genre, but it was an unfortunate choice - especially because I got a rush of excitement when Armie yelled it out, only to have Tonto buzzkill it immediately. I guess it was supposed to be cheesy? I'm too old fashioned for that or something.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

All the goodwill that I gave Verbinski and Depp with Rango (a very good animated movie that was an homage to the more cartoonish aspects of the Old West that was conscious of the territory of that humor firmly belonging to the people at Looney Tunes) was rescinded. That goodwill seems to have had more to do with John Logan as the screenwriter.

If Verbinski saw this as an opportunity to put a revisionist spin on the Western genre (which let's face it has been the mode of every respected Western for the last 30 years), he made a fatal choice. He chose an out of date brand that nobody was asking for as a movie adaptation and one that did not necessarily lend itself to be a PG-13 rated DISNEY movie with brothels, scalpings, and heart-eating. The Pirates movies also did not call on itself to be a movie but it was fun and that ride always featured the seediness with the swash-buckling. The Lone Ranger was dated and square but of its time and made for mass-consumption.

Christopher- Yeesh. Nobody is angered that you liked the movie. But people don't like people who carry around a martyr complex for liking a movie because 'experts' did not.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Christopher, sorry, if you can't even get a decent trailer out of a two-and-a-half-hour flick, then it's DOA.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Zig Misiak the 'real' TONTO, a new book July 19 2013 biography of Jay Silverheels, TONTO: The Man in Front of the Mask, http://www.realpeopleshistory.com/tonto.html

This new book will help separate fact from fiction and help others, other than babyboomers who already know, understand the original Tonto aka Jay Silverheels. The book is respectful of the Native/First Nations perspective and portrayal as Jay's relatives were interviewed and validated the information.
To know the 2013 Tonto you have to know the 'original' Tonto aka Jay Silverheels from the 50's movies......in order to make an informed decision and subsequent comments about the Depp version.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterzigmisiak

I have a number of problems with The Lone Ranger but not with the framing device.
I thought the old Tonto telling the story was necessary to cover for the gaps in the story and the physical impossible moments. It is the story told to a child by a old man who is a bit crazy. The audience is meant to question is this how it really was.
I am not a fan of the unreliable narrator but sometimes it seems required eg
Life of Pi.
Nathaniel, you have put more thought into your review than some but why does it seem
that people want to review Johnny Depp's career rather than the film? Depp is 50 and
there aren't many precedents for actors who were respected in their 20s & 30s still
being so it their 50s.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVaus

I agree with Nat,Depp is not really challenging himself but hiding behind weid characters and i agree witht he Brad comparrison too,Pitt takes risks and that is why he has had more success b/off,award and critic wise lately,

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

I really miss the Johnny Depp of the 90s/early 2000s. It seems these days he has lost all interest in crafting a performance that is right for the film, and instead lets a film be crafted around him This breeds lazy acting, and the worst kind of movie.

I love adventure movies, and wish this had been a good one. But alas, by all accounts it's rather terrible.

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

Vaus -- that's a valid question and i think the reason people are doing it (i'm hardly the only one who framed this around Depp) is that it's hard NOT to think of all his other roles while watching it. When an actor repeats themselves too much each film becoems a commentary on all the other ones. This is why people started turning on DiCaprio as well.

as for respect not lasting when an actor gets older. There are a lot of examples of that being true but nearly always it is because the actor stops challenging themselves. I mean people still respected Paul Newman until his death but he was always a hardworking actor who took the roles seriously. not really a "phoning it in" type. Ditto Meryl Streep. Pacino and DeNiro have taken a beating to their reputations but it isn't because people are fickle. It's because they stopped being brilliant!

i imagine it's very hard for true movie stars to keep trying because the hunger vanishes. they don't need to work so they have to intrinsically WANT to challenge themselves and be in the profession solely for the art to keep hungry about the art (see also: nicole kidman)

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Meryl Streep could have been a great character actress but she had to be prom queen and the rest is what happens when an actor is given endless praise no matter what.

July 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

My friends and I watched it yst and we enjoyed it so much. Johnny Depp did an amazing job as the Tonto. I almost forgot who he really is. Apart from some violent scenes like cutting heart, the movie is fun and interesting!

July 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKay

My husband and I loved this movie, very entertaining. They took something funny and pushed the envelope just a little further.... Like feeding the dead crow. Don't analyze this movie, just enjoy the silliness.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSharon H

It happens once every 7 or 8 years but my opinion is nearly identical.

Verbinski deserves better after Rango.

October 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

I really enjoyed this movie but I do agree with the others that he could do better. He is definite one of my favorite actors and the movie disappointed me a little.

June 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErin

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