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A tight little movie where every setup is paid off —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Director Gore Verbinski’s latest has its moments — but his story about an American icon tries to do too much while dragging on for nearly two-and-a-half hours.

I’ve long regarded director Gore Verbinski as one of the few filmmakers working today who understands visual comedy, somewhat in the same way that the masters of silent film understood it. It takes nearly all of the intermittently exhausting 149 minutes of The Lone Ranger for Verbinski (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) to put his best talents on display in an action set piece that, though not quite as fleet or nimble as expected, begins to deliver the summer-movie goods.

Until that point, Verbinski — who in 2011 won critical and audience approval for the animated Rango — seems caught in a suffocating trap. He is at once presenting a revisionist view of The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) that makes Tonto (Johnny Depp) into a dominating presence. He’s also making winking fun of westerns, paying homage to native Americans and throwing in splashes of blockbuster-level action.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger ride again
Tonto and the Lone Ranger ride again

Does it work? Only in fits and starts. The Lone Ranger becomes a mixed bag of ploys that’s evidently supposed to be elevated by Depp’s headliner performance. Depp, of course, is caught in a trap himself. He can’t give an over-the-top Jack Sparrow-like performance without trashing Tonto nor can he play the role completely straight.

To steer the movie away from condescension, Depp portrays Tonto as an equal (or perhaps even superior) partner to Hammer’s character.

No stranger to oddball costumes, Depp this time coats his face with white paint — evidently cracked from years of baking in the Western sun. He also wears a dead crow head dress. He’s the antithesis of Jay Silverheels, the well-groomed Canadian Mohawk who played Tonto on TV and who talked in clipped, cliched sentences.

In the 2013 edition of The Lone Ranger, Tonto seems like one more weird-ass Depp creation, and, yes, I think it’s time that Depp made a real movie, something that didn’t have to be released between May and August.

Working with a team of Pirates writers, Verbinski employs a mostly distracting framing device to tell an origins story about America’s favorite masked man. During the 1930s, a boy — dressed in a Lone Ranger costume — visits an Old West diorama at a carnival.

Before you can say, “Kimosabe,” an aged Indian from the diorama (“The Noble Savage in His Native Habitat”) comes to life, evidently to tell the real story of the white man who, by the 1930s, already had attained mythic status as The Lone Ranger. The Indian, of course, is Tonto.

The plot is an uninspired amalgam of Western tropes that pits a tenderfoot (Hammer’s John Reid, the man who becomes The Lone Ranger) against the ruthless Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an outlaw who has fallen under the sway of a greedy railroad tycoon (Tom Wilkinson).

John Reid, a devotee of the law who refuses to carry a gun, becomes inspired to capture Cavendish after John’s lawman brother (James Badge Dale) falls victim to Cavendish’s brutality. Not content with mere murder, Cavendish rips the man’s heart out of his chest and eats it. Now, it’s true that my memory isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t think the old TV show featured many instances of cannibalism.

In this outing, Cavendish’s foul ways turn Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson) into the widowed mother of a young son.

At times, The Lone Ranger — shot with plenty of big-vista style by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli — feels like a serious revival of a classic Western. At other times, the movie plays like a goof on those same westerns. At still other times, it’s a surprisingly mournful look at the exploitation of Native Americans.

Hammer makes a decent Lone Ranger, a good foil and straight man for Depp’s Tonto, but no actor could have unified the movie’s wildly disparate parts, which drag their collective way to the action set piece that provides the movie with its near-rousing finale.

You will learn why The Lone Ranger wears a mask. You’ll discover how Tonto came to be estranged from his tribal roots. You’ll see how the Lone Ranger acquired Silver, a horse that seems to have magical powers.

Will you care about any of this? Not so much, to borrow an anachronistic phrase Tonto overworks. The Lone Ranger tends to be increasingly enervating right up until the time that Verbinski breaks out an amped-up version of the Ranger’s signature tune, the famed William Tell Overture.

Verbinski tries to return us to (and debunk) what the original radio show and, then, the TV version called “the thrilling days of yesteryear,” but in this version too much of the thrill is gone.

“Hi ho, Silver!,” the cry that defined the character played by Clayton Moore on TV, could just as well have been “Oh no, Silver!”

The Lone Ranger probably should have remained a relic, a bit of cherished radio and TV nostalgia — and not much else.*

*For the record: The Lone Ranger is better than 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger, but then so is almost everything — and that includes most street busking.