In 1933 San Francisco, a little boy (Bryant Prince) dressed in a cowboy hero costume wanders a carnival until he finds something which catches his attention, a tent which proclaims to be a Wild West exhibit. Hoping it will be evocative, the boy walks in and feels largely unimpressed at the displays showing a stuffed buffalo or grizzly bear - but this Indian mannequin looks interesting. Suddenly the figure's eyes snap to the side, staring at him and he realises this elderly man is a living and breathing soul, so he speaks to him, mystified by his insistence on calling the boy Kemo Sabe, almost as if this wizened geezer was actually Tonto, partner to the legendary Lone Ranger...
Except in this case The Lone Ranger was partner to the legendary Tonto, as Johnny Depp who played the Indian (hey, he claimed to be part descended from a native tribe) was not only the name above the title but he was far more famous than his co-star Armie Hammer; and he secured an executive producer credit. Some had a problem with this focus, but the film had a point, we knew all we were going to about the Ranger, yet his best pal was a far more mysterious prospect for something fresh in storytelling terms. Alas, all these noble intentions went to pot when it turned out not as many people wanted to see these characters revitalised as the filmmakers might have hoped.
It wasn't as if Westerns had fallen so drastically out of favour that they were anathema to twenty-first century audiences, because there had been a major hit around the time from Quentin Tarantino which proved in the right circumstances the box office tills would be set a-ringing by the thought of cowboys riding 'cross the plains and firing off their six shooters, but there was a difference, no matter the similarities with The Lone Ranger. Django Unchained had been expressly made for adults and took a sincere, if cartoonish, look at a part of the past of the United States which did not paint their ancestors in a very beneficial light, whereas this was aimed squarely at family audiences so lacked that outlaw glamour - director Gore Verbinski was never going to be a Tarantino.
That in spite of this Lone Ranger taking an oddly sincere look at other aspects of the States which were less than admirable, in this case the manner in which the prosperity of the white man was built on the backs of those of other races, as Tonto is explicitly shown to be the last survivor of a tribe wiped out by the new Americans, and the business of the railroad tantamount to standing on slavery to create huge profits. The whole notion of the corporate world exploiting the little guy, a theme returned to time and again by fiction and documentary for some decades by this point, was prominent here, with Tom Wilkinson's silver mining in 1866 kicking off the legend of the Ranger when one John Reid (Hammer) get mixed up with it. He is here in an official capacity, here being way out West at the frontier, but then he and his party are ambushed by Wilkinson's men, including down and dirty bad guy Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) who is even more vile than his boss.
Reid is left for dead until Tonto, who he has met earlier on the train, tussling with bad guys in the meantime, revives him using mysticism and begins to obliquely coach him in the ways of Lone Rangerdom (although how Lone can he be with Tonto by his side?). Desperate to keep the viewer interested, Verbinski and company threw in as much as they could when a more straightforward plot would have been a better bet, not to mention a shorter one, so along with corporate malfeasance and genocide you had to consider such things as the balance of nature being knocked off course, as evinced by flesh-eating rabbits hopping in from another movie. Yes, the big locomotive chase was impressive if you ignored troublesome physics, but on the whole humour and self importance were not an easy mix; that opening where Tonto mistakes the boy for his long lost friend was oddly moving, however, and more of that tone would have spoken volumes in a way that overblown right-on business did not. You did get Helena Bonham Carter with a gun leg, mind you. Music by Hans Zimmer; at least they kept the theme.
Born Gregor Verbinski, this visually inventive director got his start in advertising before making his feature debut in 1997 with the anarchic comedy Mousehunt. He helmed the critically-maligned thriller The Mexican and hit horror remake The Ring, while swashbuckling epic Pirates of the Caribbean, with Johnny Depp, spawned a multi-million dollar franchise. He left that after the third instalment to make his first animation, the comedy Western Rango which he followed with a live action one, mega-flop The Lone Ranger, then another flop, the horror remake A Cure for Wellness. Verbinski was also creator of Budweiser's frog TV ad campaign.