Thursday, January 16, 2014

IN DEFENSE OF THE LONE RANGER by Mike Sullivan

This summer, THE LONE RANGER became the designated punchline of 2013. It was the movie you weren’t just expected to hate but encouraged. Like most people that are occasionally paid to complain about things, I wanted to hate it too. I wanted people at parties to ask me about THE LONE RANGER just so I could slowly give it a thumbs down as I made a loud, prolonged fart noise. And then, as everyone laughed heartily, I would dance an improvised, free-style jig as they clapped and cheered me on. But I never got around to seeing it and I don’t know anyone who would invite me to a party or even talk to me. It was not to be. I had to just wait for the thing to come out on DVD and then, THEN, I could I jump on top of the hate pile with Owen Gleiberman and Peter Travers where we would wiggle our fannies to and fro and collectively despise a common enemy like a big bunch of cool dudes extraordinaire!


But as I watched THE LONE RANGER, a funny thing happened, I liked it. Not “liked it,” but actually, legitimately liked it. To me, THE LONE RANGER was one of the best films released this summer. A frequently subversive and incredibly entertaining action comedy whose only true crime is that it’s a little overlong. Here now are some reasons why you should open up your heart and let the Lone Ranger in. 

Gore Verbinski Is a Better Director Than You Think: I don’t know what the common consensus is that surrounds Verbinski, but I have a feeling it isn’t too positive. After all, the guy is responsible for giving us the Budweiser frogs and those unnecessary, painfully convoluted PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels. But for a mainstream director who ostensibly makes “family” films in the frequently obnoxious Bruckheimer mold, Verbinski is shockingly good. Unlike his peers, Verbinski’s films aren’t just a disconnected collection of loud, shiny objects punching louder, shinier objects -- as THE LONE RANGER beautifully demonstrates -- his films are scummy and surreal yet playful and silly. He’s also one of the few directors in Hollywood who can seamlessly integrate slapstick comedy into action sequences. His films have personality, a distinct identity. Additionally, THE LONE RANGER is the closest any film under the Walt Disney banner has ever come to being a Grindhouse movie. Not only do the characters spend time hanging around whorehouses and Victorian era freak shows, but it’s also pretty violent. How violent? In the film, William Fichtner plays a cannibalistic outlaw who, one point, tears the heart out of a character’s chest and eats it in front of stunned, vomiting onlookers (sure, it’s off-screen but still, this is happening in a Disney film!) 


It’s Weird: Some critics have actually compared THE LONE RANGER to DEAD MAN and it’s a comparison that isn’t nearly as strange as it sounds. After all, THE LONE RANGER contains a fair amount of nods to DEAD MAN and in some ways kind of functions as a dumbed down reinterpretation of the Jim Jarmusch film. But to me THE LONE RANGER has a little more in common with EL TOPO and the films of Terry Gilliam. Sure, it’s a very watered down Terry Gilliam film and an extremely Disney-fied EL TOPO, but the vibe is still there.


THE LONE RANGER starts fucking with its audience right away with a ballsy opening sequence. While visiting a Wild West museum a small child in a Lone Ranger costume comes across an exhibit depicting a very elderly American Indian insensitively dubbed “The Noble Savage” by a nearby plaque. After a beat, the exhibit comes to life and reveals itself as Tonto who proceeds to tell the oddly disinterested child the secret origins of The Lone Ranger. Admirably, the film never explains what’s happening here. Is the child imagining this? Is Tonto still alive even though this part is set in 1933 and Tonto is well over 110 years old? If he’s still alive, why is he wasting his golden years standing very still in a traveling carnival sideshow? Is he a wax statue that somehow gained sentience? Or a stuffed, mounted and undead conversation piece? Who knows? The movie may never let us in on its little secret, but this scene also sets the appropriate tone. Right from the start, THE LONE RANGER is announcing that anything can happen. Throughout the film carnivorous jack-rabbits feast on scorpions, members of an old brass band perform while confined to full body casts and Helena Bonham Carter plays the whorehouse madam whose prosthetic ivory leg (that everyone is hypnotically compelled to grope) doubles as a shot gun. Verbinski truly delights in subverting the expectations of mainstream audiences and it’s fun just trying to figure out what weird little path the film will tread down next (will it involve a vicious wall-eyed outlaw in a bonnet? I’ll never tell!) It’s a shame this movie basically destroyed Verbinski’s career because it would be interesting to see just how surreal his next film could get. 


It Reinvents The Lone Ranger and Tonto in an Interesting Way: Look, I understand why the original Lone Ranger was popular during the '30s. The world of entertainment was still relatively new and the idea of a man in a mask and another man in braids teaming up to sternly lecture cattle rustlers seemed groundbreaking back then. But times change, entertainment evolves and The Lone Ranger now seems boring and joyless. Which is probably why most audiences avoided the film in the first place. But much in the same way Joseph Losey brilliantly upended audience expectations with MODESTY BLAISE, Verbinski and his writers take The Lone Ranger and Tonto in a fresh new direction. While never outwardly treating the characters as jokes, Verbinski clearly isn’t taking The Lone Ranger or Tonto seriously either. Which is why The Lone Ranger is reimagined as an inflexible dork who can’t even manage to playfully toss a three-year-old child a toy without it being sucked out the window of a moving train and Tonto is depicted as a delusional outcast whose shamanistic wisdom is eventually revealed to be psychotic gibberish. Even better, The Lone Ranger and Tonto barely tolerate each other and everyone around them treats them with undisguised contempt (mostly because they assume The Lone Ranger’s mask is some weird sex thing). Even though the characters manage to do heroic things, they’re neurotic and deeply flawed but far more human than most characters in comic book movies.
  

It’s Funny: Obviously this one is a little more subjective than the rest and if I haven’t lost any of you yet, I’ll probably lose you now. I realize we’re currently in the middle of Johnny Depp backlash and, yes I’ve read all of the hit pieces on the internet that reveal he owns a lot of hats and I should hate him because only shitty, ass-barrels own a lot of hats, but I just can’t hate the guy. Even worse, I still find the guy charming. Worser still, I really enjoyed his dry interpretation of Tonto. Nothing he did managed to irritate me. Not even the near-constant mugging or the scene where he put a bird cage on his head to avoid a cat. Nonetheless, I make no apology for my taste. Except for the implicit one throughout this paragraph and this very explicit one that states, “I’m sorry for liking Johnny Depp. Please don’t hate me.”

But still, Depp isn’t The Lone Ranger’s only focus. Armie Hammer, who previously came off as almost criminally bland in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and MIRROR, MIRROR, really proves himself as a strong comedic actor here, effortlessly holding his own against Depp’s quirkiness. And apart from the (apparently now required) collection of meta-humor and surprisingly adult gross-out gags (who would have ever guessed there would be an anal rape gag in a Disney movie?), I really enjoyed the little nods to the films of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton even though I usually can’t stand slavish recreations of creaky, silent-era comedy. Of course, I should stress that most of this is more amusing than laugh out funny. However, the most important thing is that you won’t be cringing through this (unless you can’t stand Depp anymore, in which case, you should probably avoid this).

Granted, I might be overrating THE LONE RANGER just a bit. It may not be as great as I’m making it out to be. I really don’t know. I’m just one person and my brain is telling the rest of my body that it really enjoyed the film. I don’t know who you are and I probably wouldn’t like you if I did but that doesn’t matter. All I’m asking is that you don’t automatically jump on top of the hate pile and wiggle your fanny just yet. Watch the movie and draw your own conclusions. Besides, I really think it’s worth your precious time. Just make sure you have a lot of it (This film is very, VERY fucking long. We’re talking longer than BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ long. Oof, it’s loooong!).

4 comments:

Jeff B. said...

Y'know what? This convinces me that I need to see this flick. Over the past several years, I've found myself increasingly befuddled by the reactions of both general audiences and fanboys when it comes to most films, especially big blockbusters.

I listened to all the wailing and gnashing of teeth for flicks like Iron Man 2 and 3 and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and was puzzled to find all of those movies actually pretty good. In fact, I liked them quite a bit.

Crystal Skull was the biggest puzzler; I'm as big a fan of Indy as anyone, and I just couldn't see why it was savaged so thoroughly by fanboys. OK, so there is a current vogue for hating on Shia LaBoeuf, but I thought he was pretty decent in the flick. There is also the bizarre (to me) bashing of the "big secret" at the end, but, umm, this was the 1950s, and that kind of thing was as much a part of the cultural paranormal landscape as Nazis seeking out artifacts was in the '30s. Plus, just about any bit that got soundly thumped in Crystal Skull (the refrigerator, for example) I could counter by pointing out something equally ridiculous in another Indy movie (uh, howzabout that rollercoaster mine car ride in Temple of Doom?). Maybe all this has to do with people seeing the earlier movies as kids, and nostalgia coloring their reactions to the new movie. I was a full-grown adult when Temple of Doom came out, and it doesn't do much for me beyond being fairly enjoyable.

Anyway, my point is that the flicks I mentioned are actually not bad, and are actually pretty good, much as this post emphasizes about The Lone Ranger. I could point at any number of similar blockbusters that somehow elicit adoration, yet which I find to be headache-inducing bore-fests (Transformers, I'm looking at you).

And don't get me started on John Carter and Conan the Barbarian, both of which I find to be unfairly maligned. Yeah, I don't expect much support on those...

Anonymous said...

You're not alone in liking Crystal Skull and John Carter. In fact, I still prefer Crystal Skull over Temple of Doom. Thank you Jeff.

-Mike Sullivan

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