Tonto Takes Over

'The Lone Ranger' should be called 'Tonto! (And the Lone Ranger)'

Now that The Lone Ranger is upon us, maybe the people who are so offended by the Summer Guide 2013 cover will take their knickers, untwist them, and then re-twist them over Johnny Depp’s supposed redface portrayal of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s long-suffering sidekick. Probably not, because if your sacred cow isn’t tipped, who cares, right?

In case you missed it, lots of people are angry over Depp’s decision to play Tonto in the manner he plays Tonto. There’s further anger that he’s a white man playing Tonto. And the dead bird on his head. And et cetera. 

Sorry, peeps: The redface is a red herring. Depp is pretty smart, and his decision to play Tonto as an ironic version of his TV counterpart is rather inspired. And actually, it’s pretty simple. 1) Draw the people in/get the dander up with something familiar and taboo. 2) Turn familiar/taboo image on its head. 3) Giggle all the way to the bank as familiar image/taboo becomes hero instead of laughingstock.

In fact, Depp’s presence is so great in The Lone Ranger, the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer) ends up being the sidekick. That’s fine, because this is Depp’s show, whether it has Tonto’s name in lights or the masked man’s. 

Depp and his frequent collaborators, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (along with screenwriter Justin Haythe), have done what they do best: They’ve taken a thin premise and turned it into big, brashy, overlong entertainment. On the Verbinski/Depp enjoyment scale, The Lone Ranger lands somewhere after the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and before its follow-ups. (Rango stands alone.)

Sometime in 1869, attorney John Reid (Hammer) returns to Texas from the east coast, joins his brother as a ranger on a hunt for outlaws in Indian Territory, and gets shot to shit. Tonto (Depp), with the help of a smart and wily white horse, brings Reid back to life—or he never died; it’s not clear, intentionally—and together they hunt down the people responsible for killing Reid’s brother. 

That ain’t the half of it, of course. There’s also Tonto’s quest for the men who killed his family. And then there’s Reid’s long-lost love, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson); the railroad magnate (Tom Wilkinson); the cavalry officer (Barry Pepper); and the super-bad guy, Butch Cavendish, played with appropriate hamminess by a wonderful William Fichtner.

As with all Verbinski movies post-The Ring, The Lone Ranger has way too much happening. At 149 minutes, there are about 40 minutes of shenanigans and story that could go and we’d miss nothing. For example, the entire movie has a framing device with Depp playing a very old Tonto. It serves no purpose. 

Then there’s the standard Rossio-Elliott plot-heaviness. Some of the characters aren’t what they seem. Some of them are, and some of them are worse than we can imagine. The reveals—and audiences will figure out the plot twists before the characters in the movie do—shouldn’t take this much time when it’s pretty clear who’s good and who’s bad the moment they walk on screen.

The actors are fine, especially Fichtner and Depp. For all those who think Depp is making fun of the Comanche—the tribe that adopted him—the joke’s on them. This entire movie is a joke. The only question is whether you’re in on it. 

That brings us to Armie Hammer, who’s in on the joke, but also the butt of it. He just doesn’t have much to do. If his comic timing were better—if his character(s) were better developed, as in The Social Network—he’d be as vital as Tonto. But he isn’t. Tonto just needs kemosabe to get shot at, which is a nice change of pace for the guy who used to be the sidekick.

Directed by Gore Verbinski
With Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer and William Fichtner
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14
149 min.
A super violent PG-13

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