Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: The Lone Ranger (which somehow also became an essay about Westerns in general)

Courtney's back kids! Sorry I've been M.I.A for awhile, cosplay and conventions are demanding work.

It was my brother's birthday last week and he wanted to see World War Z, which I couldn't care less about. I would rather watch another goddamn vampire movie before I watch another zombie one. Plus I have been playing Last of Us, I've filled my post-apocalyptic quotient for now.
So I snuck into the Lone Ranger instead, what did I think?

Wasted.Opportunity. That's this movie in two words.
Ever since the incredible success of the Pirates of the Caribbean ten years ago, Disney has been trying to catch that lightning in a bottle again and again and again to little success.
The first Pirates film was something new and completely unexpected, reviving a genre thought long since dead. Captain Jack Sparrow became one of the most iconic character of film with Johnny Depp delivering a bizarre yet fascinating performance.

And then they made sequels which became progressively worse with each one. It soon became the Jack Sparrow show and I think we all got tired of Johnny Depp doing the same Russell Brand act real fast, we have Russell Brand for that now. Yet the franchise is still turning a profit and a fifth film is currently in pre-production with a sixth film is also planned, Odin save us.

Despite still flogging that dead horse, Disney wanted to find the next big franchise, you can easily spot these flagships by their marketing which boldly states "from the team that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean". There was National Treasure, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the Prince of Persia and John Carter of Mars.
All of them were average in every sense of the word, which I think is the worst thing a film can be, not good enough that you are actually engaged in the plot, but not so incompetent as to be entertaining in an ironic sense. I mean two of those films have Nicolas Cage in them and his acting is, by his standards, measured and restrained, who wants that from Nic Cage?

I think the thing that disappoints me most about these films is that they are set in genres or cultures that I love. I grew up with Indiana Jones and the video game series Uncharted (yeah, I'm young, what of it?), so I love a good action/adventure fortune-hunter story. I'm fascinated by history and Persia, like most of the middle east is an interesting culture. My absolute favourite two genres are sci-fi and westerns, especially when they're put together, John Carter and The Princess of Mars is one of my all time favourite books.

I don't think the Western is dead, it just evolves, if last year's Django Unchained is any proof.  
The Lone Ranger is what I call a "Golden Age" Western, much like comic books, the early Westerns were light and campy. All the sets and costumes were just a little too clean, they had a very simple sense of morality, good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black. Also there was no shortage of sexism and racism as can be expected.

Somewhere around the late 50's the western changed and became darker, John Wayne bridged the gap between the two eras having starred in Westerns since the 20's. The Searchers (1956) and True Grit (1969) are two examples of "Silver Age" Westerns.
By the 60's Westerns were challenged by the space-race and The Lone Ranger didn't really have a place in this new pop-culture atmosphere. Essentially, Captain Kirk punched him in his masked face.
But that didn't spell the end for the genre, along came Sergio Leone with his unique directorial style which would come to be known as the genre Spaghetti Western. It also shot Clint Eastwood into stardom, gave us mysterious men with no name, rogue gunslingers and anti-heroes. It not only established a new look but also a new sound for Westerns with the highly influential soundtracks by Ennio Morricone.
These were darker, more violent, more exciting and more action-packed Westerns than their predecessors, it's no wonder Quentin Tarantino was inspired by these films.

By the 70's the Western genre came to influence fashion, something I can greatly approve of, but this was also the decade that would mark the end of the Western genres' popularity, which meant it was time for it to evolve once more.
The "Bronze Age" spanning from the 70's to the 90's gave us the "Revisionist Western" with films like Tombstone and Unforgiven, attempting to portray a more grounded, realistic depiction of the real American frontier. Also we got some unusual takes on Westerns during the 70's with Blazing Saddles and West World, both are most excellent.

This brings us to the modern era of Westerns, where they are few and far between and they can range in tone considerably. They may be set in futuristic or science fiction settings like Firefly(2002) or Cowboys vs Aliens(2011), they may be contemporary like No Country for Old Men(2007) or Robert Rodriguez' Mexico Trilogy. Some, like Deadwood(2004), were unique in their ultra grim and gritty visions of the West. The genre has even ventured into new formats like the video game *Red Dead Redemption (2010).
*Must resist urge to play that right now.

By the 90's another subgenre was emerging, Steampunk, a form of retro-futurism, combining the culture of the late 19th century with advanced technology cobbled together from period accurate materials. Basically imagine if the industrial revolution occurred a century earlier.
This has yet to become a significant genre in Hollywood films and the less said about Wild Wild West(1999) the better. And yet it's that very film that I am reminded of when I watch The Lone Ranger (yes I'm finally getting to it).

Both are films are attempts to revive and remake long forgotten franchises, although the Lone Ranger and Tonto have the advantage of having become something of cultural icons, not unlike the Green Hornet and Kato. Their signature costumes, the William Tell Overture theme song, catch phrases like "Hi-ho Silver, away!" and "Ke-mo sah-bee (which actually has no real meaning) have become fixtures in modern culture despite many being unaware of their origins. I was curious to see how it was adapted, even if I didn't hold high hopes for it.

The first thing I noticed, it's a damn good looking film, the most important thing to me in a Western is that it should make me fall in love with the beautiful harsh mistress that is the desert. The wide open planes, the canyons and the mountains all create a natural negative space, making it seem as if it were made for film.

The second thing I noticed is Hans Zimmer don't give a shit no more, the soundtrack is lazy, not only does it tread just a little close to Morricone territory but he rips from his own work. Tonto's "theme" is almost identical to Sherlock's which was already a few degrees removed from Jack Sparrow's. Take a listen.

Apparently Jack White was originally intended to compose, which would have been interesting as he was involved in the Spaghetti Western inspired concept album Rome.

Like The Great Gatsby, this film uses an odd framing device in which a young Pee Wee Herman boy who idolizes the Lone Ranger enters a museum and encounters what is supposed to be a mannequin but it turns out it's actually old man Tonto in more aging make-up than Guy Pearce in Prometheus.
Instead of the kid freaking out, he decides to stick around to hear the story of the Lone Ranger being recounted by the crazy old guy.

Tonto in his original incarnation was a smart, resourceful character, a loyal friend and equal to the Lone Ranger.

Johnny Depp's Tonto is Jack Sparrow.

No really, there's not much more to him than that, if you were to take a wild Jack Sparrow and raise him in a Native American tribe, this Tonto would be the result. He has nothing more going for him than his kooky personality and possible implied mental illness. Depp is actually a brilliant actor and has given many iconic and diverse performances over his career. However it's hard to remember him playing anything other than eccentric post-Pirates... Public Enemies, maybe?
Visually, I really like his costume, it was inspired by this painting, "I am Crow", although a more apt title might be "I am THE Crow" as it does look reminiscent of a Native American Brandon Lee.

This has caused quite a bit of controversy in that many feel it is a wrongful depiction of the Native American people, as a huge fan of that culture I can understand where they are coming from. But I can also imagine this costume was chosen specifically for the purpose of avoiding a connection to any particular tribe, which is rendered pointless because they state that Tonto is a member of the Comanche tribe. The rest of the tribe is accurate in their manner of dress and they are correctly depicted as a horse riding culture.

Soon we are introduced to the Lone Ranger himself John Reid, whose origin is made to be much more like Will Eisner's The Spirit in which he survives a near death experience and is seemingly immortal. I was afraid they might go down the Jonah Hex route, but it seems there's no actual supernatural element in this film. Reid seems to survive many scrapes through sheer luck.
I quite like Armie Hammer, he's a real Captain America type which is perfect for a true clean-cut, white-hat-hero like the Lone Ranger without becoming bland, I find him endearing.

 The story follows a predictable path, a quest for revenge over the Cavendish gang who have wronged both Reid and Tonto, which is faithful to the origin story of the serials. But it's done in a way that's so unmemorable and unengaging that you feel like you're just wandering from scene to scene, distracted by pretty things or waiting for the next action sequence. The only saving grace is that Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp play off each other well and it's their interactions that keep you interested. One of the best scenes was watching the morality struggle between the two when revenge is just within their grasp and Reid and Tonto find they have very different concepts of justice. This reminds me a lot of John Carter and the Prince of Persia in that we have likeable protagonists who share great chemistry but not really given much to do.

I should also mention Silver the horse was a fun character as well, often when a live-action horse is made into a character rather than just a mode of transport it can come off as obnoxious. But Silver was fun, okay it got a little cartoony at times, but he got a laugh from the audience I saw it with.

Speaking of humour, I'm uncertain of who this film is aimed at, it's rated PG, but like Wild Wild West it's a strange mix of childish humour and adult jokes and themes including rape and prostitution.
The action sequences were very well choreographed and quite creative, the finale in which the Lone Ranger and Silver give chase while the theme song plays triumphantly was where I felt it was finally becoming what I would want out of a Lone Ranger film...And then it ended.

Overall  I say it's a completely mediocre film, it doesn't do anything wrong, but you won't give it much thought after the credits role either.If you're still curious, I recommend saving it for home release.

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