The Lone Ranger? Forget that dude, kemosabe. The best reason to see Disney’s eponymous reboot is Tonto.
Played by the great Johnny Depp with his face slathered in semipermanent war paint and a dead crow perpetually perched on his head, this 21st-century Tonto does most of his talking with his eyes and expressions, often to hilarious effect.
The second-best reason to see “The Lone Ranger”? The trusty white steed, Silver. Here, the legendary mount is a stubborn, single-minded, quasimagical “spirit animal” with a taste for strong whiskey and a penchant for suddenly popping up in places where horses usually don’t tread, including the roof of a barn and the branches of a tall tree.
“Something very wrong with that horse,” Tonto drily observes in one scene.
And there, in a nutshell, you have the insurmountable hurdle at the heart of this movie: When the sidekick and the horse are way more interesting than the title character, it’s a problem.
And it’s not the only one:
The Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer) is drawn as a wimp, a guy who, when called out by a grungy, gun-wielding desperado, suggests putting up their dukes and fighting Marquis of Queensbury style.
Yes, yes, he’s a paragon of justice who lives by a strict moral code, shoots only to disarm, never to kill, blah, blah, blah.
That’s fine for a 1950s television serial. But in 2013, a big-budget PG-13 summer action movie needs a headliner with just a little more edge.
Hammer’s milquetoasty character only exaggerates the sense that this relative newcomer is in over his head trying to swim with Depp and accomplished veterans Tom Wilkinson as a railroad baron, Helena Bonham Carter as a one-legged brothel owner, Barry Pepper as a cavalry commander and William Fichtner as a cleft-lipped outlaw.
But it’s Depp who casts the longest shadow. And not just on screen — as one of the producers, he reunited his old “Pirates of the Caribbean” gang, director Gore Verblinski and writing team Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.
Is it any wonder Tonto’s back story goes into far greater detail than the Lone Ranger’s?
Yet all of the above might not have mattered — at least, not as much — had Elliott and Rossio, along with Justin Haythe, come up with a more engaging story.
Unfortunately, it’s Disney-simple, with all that implies.
John Reid (Hammer) is a lawyer who returns to his dusty Texas hometown to serve as county prosecutor. His strict views on procedural law-and-order put him at odds with his brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a tough Texas Ranger more in tune with the traditional notion of frontier justice.
John, Dan and a posse of Rangers ride out in pursuit of escaped killer Butch Cavendish (Fichtner), who ambushes them and kills everyone but John.
Left to die, John is found by Tonto, a Comanche who is also after Butch, believing him to be an evil spirit. And the two team up to finish their mutual quest.
Although the framework expands a bit to encompass a struggle for control of the transcontinental railroad and a rich silver lode on Comanche land, the thin story just never grabs you, despite being filled to overflowing with the usual computer-generated stunts.
And the kicker: this simplistic story runs an unfathomable 2 ½ hours. Are you kidding me?
Depp is amusing, some of the origin details are intriguing, the big finale that plays out aboard two sets of runaway rail cars is nicely done, and it’s admittedly a kick when that famous William Tell Overture cranks up.
But such thrills are fleeting in a too-long film that’s too intense for little kids, not nearly intense enough for grown-ups.