The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinsky’s revisionist telling of the legend of the masked man of the plains, will no doubt go down in history as the box office disaster of the summer of 2013. At a cost of $250 million, plus additional millions spent on advertising, the film failed to draw the public’s interest and has so far made back only a fraction of its cost in ticket sales. I saw it at a matinee with eight other people. Too bad. It’s a really good film.
This is the second year in a row that the Disney Studio has produced a bomb that ended up costing them a lot of money. Last year John Carter suffered a similar fate. Fans of the Carter character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs bemoaned the way Disney marketed the film, blaming executives rather than the filmmakers for the catastrophe. I can’t agree with that. I personally thought John Carter WAS a bomb. The script messed up the Carter character by giving him a sob-sister backstory that really wasn’t needed. The two leads, Taylor Kitsch and whoever it was played Dejah Thoris, brought nothing to the film. The film had absolutely no star power to help make it a success.
Not so with The Lone Ranger. Johnny Depp, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, not only starred but also produced the film, playing Tonto, the co-lead alongside Armie Hammer in the title role. Depp worked with Verbinski on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which made a lot of money, and probably expected to continue raking in the cash. But this time around, Verbinski and Depp struck out. And struck out big.
You really can’t blame bad advertising for the film being a commercial flop (although early release of stills showing Depp in his weird Tonto makeup with the dead crow on his head turned some people off). There was, however, the usual pre-release sniping by the “Hollywood Press,” predicting in advance that the movie would never make the money it needed to be a financial winner. Same thing happened to John Carter. Seems like there are some people out there in the media, (shall we call them media hacks?), who could never write a screenplay or have an original idea for one, if their lives depended on it, who enjoy taking down those who can and do.
Those two things may have been contributing factors to The Lone Ranger’s box office failure, but I suspect there is a bigger reason than that. Verbinski’s film is burdened by having a really decent, intelligent, well-written script. While The Lone Ranger has plenty of spectacular action, and beautifully filmed scenes shot in New Mexico and Monument Valley (known to filmgoers as John Ford Country, and which should be seen on a really big screen in a theater), it is also smart, satirical, and has something to say about American naivete concerning the way the world really works. And that just may be a little too much for the average U.S. summer movie goer.
John Reid (Hammer) starts out as a young attorney who travels west by train hoping to join his Texas Ranger brother Dan and his family and help establish law and order through the Justice system. Reid believes in the system and abhors violence and the use of guns. Tonto is a renegade Commanche, who has been betrayed by greedy white men, and who, along with Butch Cavendish, an outlaw who eats live human hearts, is being transported west on the same train Reid is riding.
The railroad is the central metaphor in this film, used as a symbol for both progress and civilization, as well as the potential for greed, power and corruption. The man in charge of the railroad, Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), on the surface appears to be the driving force for progress, and the creation of a civilization. Of course none of what appears on the surface is what it seems to be. I won’t go into a boring recounting of the plot, except to say that it all spins around the innocent John Reid who keeps believing, like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that justice can be found by means other than through the barrel of a gun. Meanwhile, all around him, we’re shown how things really are, until it gets to the point where even Reid can no longer ignore reality,and comes to realize what Tonto means when he tells him, “That’s why you wear a mask.”
Depp’s performance is the glue that holds this movie together. Tonto already knows, through bitter experience what Reid is only beginning to learn. And yet it is not a fatalistic movie. Reid still manages to hold onto his ideals, he’s just finding a more practical way to make them work. It’s a good film and it’s a shame that the poor showing at the box office probably means the masked man will not be riding in any future sequels. Now that the origin story is over and the character has come into his own it would have been good to see him in full regalia.
I guess what it is, The Lone Ranger just isn’t a mediocre enough movie to make a lot of money. It isn’t Sylvester Stallone and a bunch of over-the-hill action stars blowing the hell out of everything. It isn’t a bunch of muppet babies playing Star Trek with jillions spent on special effects. It isn’t a bunch of impossibly equipped super heroes with personal issues battling monsters from outer space, defending the earth, while simultaneously destroying a city and a half. It isn’t teenage vampires or female warriors, or giant robots. It isn’t mindless comic book nonsense that goes in through the eyeballs and comes out later as ear wax.
Too bad that this summer, the Lone Ranger really is riding alone. “Who was that masked man?”