Monday, July 15, 2013

Hi-Yo, Silver ... Huh?

Like most boys over the last eight decades, Father Anonymous used to put on a black mask and a cowboy hat, pretending to be the Lone Ranger.  Antiquarian even as a tyke, Fr. A. grew up listening to the radio programs, reading and collecting the Fran Striker novels, watching (when he could) reruns of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels television program, dreaming of silver bullets and cities of gold.  At one point, he owned a fairly detailed Lone Ranger action figure, and forced his kid brother to settle for Tonto.  (Such are the myriad privileges of primogeniture.)

It seems unlikely, after the release of the current Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski film, that another generation of American boys will grow up this way.

The movie, which we saw last week, has been one of the worst-reviewed films of recent memory. A glance at Rotten Tomatoes turns up the words "bipolar" and  "schizophrenic."  It is too vulgar for kids, too silly for adults. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers is quoted as saying, "Your expectations of how bad The Lone Ranger is can't trump the reality."

They're not wrong.  But there's more to the story.  

We ourselves spent quite a bit of time squirming in our seat, wishing it were 1969 again.  That was the year of the last truly great Western movies:  Butch Cassidy, True Grit, The Wild Bunch.  There have certainly been some worthwhile outings since then, from The Shootist to Pale Rider.  But the genre has had a hard time figuring out where to go next.  From the comic deconstruction of Blazing Saddles to the pseudo-feminist exploitation of Bad Girls, Hollywood has thrashed about, trying to re-imagine the Western for modern times, and usually failing.

The Lone Ranger, of course, is not just a Western, but part of the very small subgenre of Western-themed superhero movies.  This is not an impossible nut to crack; the Zorro films are great fun.  And yet previous Lone Ranger reboots, in 1981 and (on television) 2003, have flopped badly.  (Not to mention the Dunwichian horror that was The Wild Wild West.) 

So Verbinski must have come into this project knowing that the odds were against him.  The obvious play would be to attempt conventional buddy picture -- Lethal Weapon in Monument Valley.  It might have worked, but then again it might have bored us all to tears. (The 1980s were so long ago!)  Pure parody might have worked, but he was never going to top Mel Brooks, so why bother?  

Playing it more or less straight -- trying to bring a Dark Knight sensibility to the project -- might have seemed logical, and is what we would have tried if it had been us.  But even there, the chances were slim.  In many ways, the Lone Ranger is more of a "comic book" character than Batman, in the most derogatory sense of that word.  Before Christopher Nolan came along, the Batman's abnormal psychology had been explored by Denny O'Neil, Doug Moench, Frank Miller and Tim Burton (and even, in a few truly strange 1940s stories, by Bill Finger himself).  In contrast, the Lone Ranger has always, always been portrayed as the straightest of straight men, the sort of character who shoots bad guys but magically never even injures them, and probably flosses his teeth each night by the campfire.  Pulling him into Nolan-land would have been a big jump.

So, faced with these unappealing choices, Verbinski went in another direction entirely.  He re-imagined The Lone Ranger as a surreal mystical adventure, a weird combination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Luis Bunuel.  This movie is not merely distinguished by its repetitive and CGI-heavy railroad battles, which bear a strong family resemblance to those in the recent Sherlock Holmes pictures, but by a horse that climbs trees and a pack of savage carnivorous rabbits.

Yes, the Ranger is a spirit-warrior, and Tonto his shamanic guide, and Silver not a horse so much as a supernatural manifestation.  Or, perhaps, the whole thing is a mischievous fable, told by an old man to a credulous boy. And maybe, just maybe, Armie Hammer's weird resemblance to George W. Bush is intended to set up some sort of political allegory. It's hard to tell.  By the end, you barely care.  You just ride along, laughing and shaking your head and waiting for the next trick to be pulled out of the magician's hat.

And by George, it's actually kind of fun.

That's the thing about Verbinski's Lone Ranger:  is is indeed a terrible movie, if you judge it by the standards of other Westerns, or superhero films, or action movies.  The only movie it really resembles, in our experience, is Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge -- a feast of deeply surreal excess, only nominally connected to its ostensible source material.  Both movies may both be enjoyed best while under the influence of mild hallucinogens -- and both movies may render such drugs superfluous.


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