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The Lone Ranger is part noble misfire and part rousing throwback.

The Noble Savage

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

This is the summer of blockbuster questions for blockbuster movies.

Why did World War Z turn out to be so generic? Why was Star Trek Into Darkness a remake of Star Trek II? Why was Man of Steel a remake of Superman II? And why, in the name of all that’s holy, is an aged Tonto in a Wild West natural history exhibit in a traveling carnival? Of those questions, the last one is the most interesting. That last question lingers.

This is The Lone Ranger by way of Gore Verbinski, the man behind the Pirates of the Caribbean’s Elizabeth Swann trilogy and the animated Oscar-winner Rango. That means The Lone Ranger offers plenty of entertainment, but it also means it’s long — clocking in at 149 minutes — and stuffed with ideas and subtexts that don’t necessarily naturally lend themselves to the genre. Verbinski overloads his movies, but the benefit is there’s more to them than meets the eye the first time through.

No doubt causing some heartburn in the House That Mickey Built, The Lone Ranger is an enormous gamble with its huge $250 million budget. How can a Western possibly cost that much, even in 2013? This is a Western with CGI buffalo, scorpions and bunnies — scorpion-eating bunnies. Yes. Things go that far out there.

With all of those ideas and all that money, The Lone Ranger is one curious ride.

It starts at that carnival in 1933 (the same year Siegel and Shuster created Superman) in San Francisco. A little boy, dressed like a cowboy, enters the Wild West exhibit, a collection of natural history taxidermy displays. Next to the stuffed buffalo is a display called “The Noble Savage.” An old, decrepit Indian (Native American) begins to interact with the boy.

It’s Tonto. And the tale that’s told — set in the 1860s — is told through his very jaundiced eyes. As the movie progresses, the story returns to the conversation between the boy and Tonto, with the boy serving as an inquisitive fact-checker when it seems Tonto is running the story right off the rails.

Never Take Off the Mask

Maybe they smoked too much peyote when Verbinski reteamed with his Pirates scribes, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.

The Lone Ranger could’ve been the next Raiders of the Lost Ark. But, given the proclivity of contemporary cinema to bog things down in reality — Batman, James Bond, and Star Trek among the classic staples that have been refashioned for the modern psyche — another question coming out of this summer’s blockbuster season is could Raiders, with its unabashed sense of fun, be made today? Much like Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger should be more fun than it is. That’s not to say it isn’t fun at all, it’s just that there should’ve been more fun.

The first two-thirds both honors and pokes fun at the traditional elements of the Lone Ranger mythos. While some things are faithful — Tonto rescues John Reid after Butch Cavendish ambushes the Texas Rangers and fashions John’s mask out of his brother’s vest, with bullet holes serving as the eye openings — other elements are weird. For one, there’s a running joke about how Tonto would’ve preferred to be partnered with John’s more adventurous and noble brother, Dan. Slightly less off-kilter is the running joke of people asking John, “What’s with the mask?”

The relationship between Tonto and The Lone Ranger is mostly contentious. Rather than being simpatico since they both have experienced the murder of loved ones, Tonto is presented as a totally unhinged character with a broken mind. It works, to a degree, particularly in the telling of a subplot about the annihilation of his Comanche tribe. And it’s clear Johnny Depp relishes the role almost as much as Jack Sparrow. As for Armie Hammer (The Social Network), he’s completely credible and agreeable as the legendary Ranger.

The Wild, Wild West

Given the movie starts in left-field with the carnival prologue, there’s an on-going questioning of where the story is headed. Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, The Dark Knight) is suitably evil. Helena Bonham Carter adds some Tim Burton-esque flair as a brothel madam with a wooden leg. Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina) is lovely and feisty as Dan Reid’s widow and John’s old flame. There are all these elements looking for cohesion.

Finally, in the third act, things spur into a masterful finale that is 100% throwback to classic Westerns, spiffed up with the action sensibilities of Indiana Jones and Jack Sparrow. And it’s another reason why this movie cost $250 million. It’s glorious. The Lone Ranger’s familiar staples all come into play —  the silver bullet, the mask, the hat, the William Tell Overture, and, yes, a mighty “Hi Yo, Silver!” When The Lone Ranger reaches its climax, its pure bliss.

Some adaptations, such as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Devil Wears Prada, tinkered with the story in ways that seemed to undermine the strength of the source material. Here, Verbinski has most definitely tinkered, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. What he has crafted is a huge-budget summer movie which actually sticks in the mind longer than any of the other blockbusters this summer, save perhaps for Iron Man 3.

Thank the movie gods, then, for Gore Verbinski because at least he always keeps things interesting. The Lone Ranger is a wild ride through the West and it’s the first movie of the summer that really requires a second viewing.