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Much better than the reviews led me to believe
on 27 November 2013
The Lone Ranger landed in British cinemas trailing behind it bad reviews and poor word of mouth from the US like the tail of a comet, and vanished from cinemas again almost as quickly. They say that bad word of mouth can kill a film just as much as good can get it an audience, and this appears to be the case here. After doing very poor business in the US (it's expected to make a loss approaching US$150m), it had turkey written all over it.
The thing is, I can understand why The Lone Ranger did really badly in the `states and it's got less to do with it being a bad film than you might expect - in fact, there's a lot here to like. For my money the reason it did really badly in the US is because it's the most cynical blockbuster I've seen since perhaps Starship Troopers; it holds up a mirror to the creation myth of the American West and I don't reckon the US liked what it saw. From experience, asking simple questions like "Didn't lots of Indians once live in this part of the Americas? What became of them?" can go down really badly on the other side of the Atlantic, and the plot of The Lone Ranger is a retelling of what happened to the Sioux nation after gold was found in the Black Hills (only relocated to Texas and with the Cherokee as the tribe in the - literal - firing line) and, just like in real history, it doesn't end well for the Indians. At least in this version the baddies get their comeuppance.
I've got to admit to being slightly mystified as to why Disney spent the better part of a quarter of a billion dollars making a film about why the Indians are notable by their absence in those areas of US where valuable minerals were to be found given that it might be a bit of a touchy subject for much of their audience.
The Film itself is yet another origin story. It is the 1880s. Slick city lawyer goes home to Texas where his elder brother is a Ranger, elder brother is killed, slick city lawyer must take up the badge to track down his killers (who it turns out are trying to steal a fortune in silver from under land which the Cherokee have inadvisably decided they'd like to live on). A simple idea, perhaps, but it takes two and a half hours to tell the story and in so doing it meanders all over the place, ranging from downright bizarre to slow to great and back again in the process.
And in my opinion that's the big weakness; tonally it's all over the place. One minute it's an homage to Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, the next to John Ford, and the next to the 1950's TV series. Moreover, it never seems certain of what it wants to be. A comedy, with an amusing sidekick and performing horse? An elegy to the Indians killed in the pursuit of economic expansion? An action blockbuster crammed with thrilling set pieces? Or a grim Unforgiven-style western with supernatural and horror elements (at one point it's implied that the Lone Ranger's brother turns up as a ghost to save someone, and then he vanishes and is never mentioned in any way again). Perhaps the greatest tonal shock for a child-friendly romp is that fact that one of the villains* is clearly identified as a cannibal who cuts out one characters' heart and eats it, and is implied to have eaten another character's leg. At these moments I was staring at the screen wondering what the hell the screenwriters were thinking. And don't get me started on the deviant fetishist US Cavalry captain who is distracted at a plot-critical moment by his attraction to a prostitute with a prosthetic limb. I mean, really?
Tonal issues and bizarre creative decisions aside, when The Lone Ranger gets it right it hits it clean out of the park in a way which few blockbusters manage. Gore Verbinski (the man behind the camera of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) really knows how to put a film together when the script allows him to do so. Take, for example, the opening shot of the big action set-piece at the end of the film:
A train filled with baddies and their hostages is pulling out of the station. As it starts to pull away a little boy leans out of one of the windows and screams for help. The camera pans across and there! On top of the hill! It's the Lone Ranger on his horse, Silver! Silver rears, the opening bars of the William Tell overture strike up, and we're off.
In that single shot there is more joy and more genuine heart than in every single dreary, self-righteous second of the washed-out, lens-flare-filled lump that was Man of Steel , and yet Man of Steel is still making money by the wheelbarrow load. It's not a fair world.
Would I recommend The Lone Ranger? Yes, I would, unequivocally. It's uneven in pace and tone, and outright bizarre in places, and yet it's also great fun and intensely likeable. Like I say above they spent in the region of $250m making it and you can tell. The look and feel of the old West is perfect and aside from a few ropy CGI shots (Note to Hollywood: we can tell. Just stop) everything looks real because much of it is real; no green-screened landscapes of rendered locomotives here; they actually built two new steam locomotives specifically for the film and went to monument valley to shoot them.
The degree of perfectionism in the look of the film is impressive in itself, it's a shame that it didn't quite carry over to the structure and the script. However, despite that criticism, The Lone Ranger is nowhere near as bad as the US reviews have made it sound (unless you're someone who doesn't like to be reminded of where all the Indians really went whilst Old Glory is flying in the background). Unusually, I'd pay money to see it again in the cinema, and that makes it only the second (after Iron Man 3) film I've seen this year I'd say that about.
*Reading this back I'm amused that I felt the need to specify that it was one of the villains who is a cannibal. It's that sort of film.