Runaway trains have enough to do in The Lone Ranger without being asked to serve as the defining symbol of this movie. Disney's bid for another Johnny Depp franchise went out of control when it left the station, bloated by a reported $250 million budget to a saddle-sore running time of two and a half hours.
Even runaway trains stop sooner and smoother.
The Lone Ranger sounds good in a studio pitch, with Depp playing Tonto and reuniting with Pirates of the Caribbean visionary Gore Verbinski to address yesteryear's last action heroes deserving big screen treatment. Yet the results are closer to the Pirates franchise's latter stages when all that was left to tell about Capt. Jack Sparrow was nonsense and noise. The ride isn't entirely unpleasant but a cringing sense of missed opportunity is unavoidable.
Verbinski wraps his movie around a conceit cribbed from Little Big Man, with Depp nearly incognito under layers of aging latex makeup. His Tonto isn't a dauntless warrior at first but a wrinkled, addled sideshow labeled "The Noble Savage," telling his story to a child. This establishes the movie's perspective as solely Tonto's, allowing serious riffs on Native American genocide and exploitation that contradict with the fun. This movie doesn't know from one scene to the next what it wishes to be, grim or goofy, and both approaches suffer for it.
Tonto spins a possibly tall tale about sugarfoot lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer), heading west when his train is hijacked by the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and his gang. John is rescued by Tonto's superstition therapy and the appearance of a scene-stealing "spirit horse" later named Silver, and vows revenge on Cavendish, who killed his Texas Ranger brother and ate his heart. The mask and silver bullets are Tonto's ideas.
The path to retribution winds through a gnarled plot involving Transcontinental Railroad corruption, a Custer-like Cavalry leader (Barry Pepper), a whorehouse madam (Helena Bonham Carter) sporting an ivory prosthetic leg with a shotgun built inside, and cannibal bunny rabbits. You can count on a runaway train to rumble through about every hour, skirting laws of physics with Rube Goldberg precision. It's easy to see where the money went in The Lone Ranger but that doesn't make it well spent.
Hammer's performance is merely warmed-over Brendan Fraser, an affable hunk wholly upstaged by Depp's eccentric flair. Depp is the only thing about The Lone Ranger that's fun or even necessary, whether feeding his dead crow headdress or polishing a politically incorrect image with a few more conjunctions in his broken English. Depp is the only reason this haphazard take on the Lone Ranger legend exists, at least in this swollen state, begging the question of why Disney didn't name the movie Tonto.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.