Thursday, November 28, 2013

Famous Turkeys: The Lone Ranger

This is the latest in a series I usually call Famous Flops, which has gotten a little Thanksgiving tweak this month. In this series I watch one movie per month that I know to be a critical or commercial failure, then discuss in gory detail. 

What better day than Thanksgiving to write about a movie that's supposedly the greatest insult to Native Americans since the Trail of Tears?

As it always is, the timing is a bit complicated, as it's not yet Thursday in the U.S. and it will never be Thanksgiving in Australia. (Though I am making turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans tonight for dinner -- shh, don't tell my wife, it's a surprise.) However, Thanksgiving is in the air, even if it's in the virtual air. Ah, if I were back in the U.S., I'd be plotting which movie to take in during my early release from work today. Maybe Oldboy.

But back to the issue at hand.

The Lone Ranger was of course the flop of 2013, and would seem like an even bigger catastrophe for Disney if John Carter hadn't flopped for them on a similar scale last year. (The cumulative disaster of the two is, of course, worse; it just means that The Lone Ranger isn't a singular phenomenon for them.) The difference is that I saw plenty of redeeming value in the fairly messy Carter. I had to dig much deeper to ferret out goodness in Ranger.

This is not to say, however, that the movie is terrible. More than anything I just founded it tedious and elongated and more violent than it had any right to be.

Let's start with that violence. It being Disney, there is of course almost a total absence of blood. That's not to say there isn't a ridiculously high body count, which you might expect in movie that chooses to depict ... an epic slaughter of indians. (Let's call them "indians," because this is one of the original contexts in which the phrase "cowboys and indians" was popularized. And since we're lower-casing "cowboys," let's do the same to "indians." Upper-case it and I think you are actually getting a tad more insensitive, like this is a title that legitimately belongs to Native Americans.)

The reason The Lone Ranger is kind of a disaster is that someone thought it was a good idea for this movie to include an epic slaughter of indians. I should clarify my terms a little here, I suppose. I'm not talking about a situation where a bunch of white men coldly kill a bunch of captive indians in the attempt to wipe them off the face of the earth. That would definitely be worse. But there is a skirmish between the cavalry and the indians that leaves many dead on both sides. What's worse than a bunch of dead bodies in an allegedly family-friendly movie is a bunch of dead bodies from a community of historically oppressed people. Not great.

There are lots of bodies falling here and there, as well as a lot of people you assume are dead based on falling off trains and the like, but the specific acts of violence are the ones that are more suspect. What about the scene where Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) cuts out a man's heart and eats it? Certainly, most of this is off-screen, but the fact that it exists at all is a serious lapse in judgment on someone's part.

Now let's get to the part that offended most people: Johnny Depp as Tonto.

I want to start out on something other than his actual portrayal, which of course involves a white man impersonating a Native American. The movie uses as its framing device -- a very questionable framing device at that -- a big fair in San Francisco in 1933, in which a young boy wearing a Lone Ranger mask is wandering through a series of dioramas with taxidermy animals in their natural habitat. He comes to one which shows us "the savage" in his natural habitat, and it's a very old indian that one would assume was a statue. Except it's not a statue -- it's Tonto, who I guess is supposed to be an early incarnation of one of those street performers who douses himself in silver paint and sits still for hours on end.

Let's ponder the problems with this for a moment:

1) Knowing that Tonto lived into his old age not only destroys any suspense about this movie, it destroys the suspense about any future Lone Ranger sequels they might make. Most of this movie plays like they're setting up for a sequel -- like, for example, the Lone Ranger only naming his horse Silver in the final scene -- but the framing device pushes things in the opposite direction. It's just another sign of poor decision-making, and I wonder if the framing device was added after the fact, when production delays and threats of potentially canceling the movie made them get realistic about its future as a franchise.

2) What the hell fair is employing Tonto as a man who sits still for 12 hours a day as a living relic of his culture? And if we like Tonto at all, which the movie clearly wants us to, aren't we a bit sad that this is what he's doing in his old age? And isn't this kind of the single most oppressive treatment of Native Americans in the entire film? Of "indians"?

I must admit, I was not hugely distracted by Depp's actual performance, even though it does involve dropping most inessential words in a sentence, as is the traditional portrayal of "indians" on screen. (I said I would use that word, and gave my reasons, yet am still finding it objectionable enough that I need to supply quotation marks when I write it.) It helps that Tonto is always the smartest person on screen, constantly involved in clever plans and acrobatic feats. His dynamic with Armie Hammer's The Lone Ranger is pretty much that of Penny and Inspector Gadget or Gromit and Wallace -- he's the second-in-command who's the real brains of the operation, shackled (sometimes literally) to a stuffed shirt who would probably quickly expire if left to his own devices.

So I won't really accuse Disney of grand insensitivity in casting Depp to play this role. It's certainly in the tradition of other Depp roles; he is, in fact, the most obvious choice among today's working movie stars. It would be great if there were a prominent Native American actor who had the star power to bring in the type of dollars this movie needed in order to be a success, but that's just not realistic. Once you decide to make a Lone Ranger movie and know that Tonto is one of the most important two characters, you've got to cast some white actor to play the role, and Depp is as good as any. Perhaps an ambiguously ethnic actor -- a Dwayne Johnson, though probably not him specifically -- would have attracted slightly less controversy. But I think it's kind of splitting hairs.

The question about The Lone Ranger really is: Is it good? Is it entertaining?

It's not good, but it is sporadically entertaining. Some of the set pieces really crackle. An otherwise illogical climactic scene involving trains on parallel tracks, which keep getting separated from each other until there are eight to ten individual train units, has some very fun choreography, with Tonto performing some of those acrobatic feats on a ladder extending between the trains. During these moments, The Lone Ranger finds the attitude that it should have for its entire running time: It's light and fluffy and, yes, fun.

It's just too bad someone thought that running time should be 149 minutes, and that 100 of those minutes should be weighed down by death, slaughter and other ponderous bummers.

Okay, up next: the last month of Famous Flops. In the end, I haven't found this series quite as fulfilling as I'd hoped, and moving to Australia (where I don't have Netflix disc-by-mail) has made getting my hands on flop candidates even more challenging that it was in the United States (where I couldn't even get the movie that I hoped to start the series back in February, Ishtar.) So perhaps the series was a little doomed from the start -- an outcome I may have invited by calling 2013 "an unlucky year for famous flops." Number 13, you've done it again.

I'll kill two birds with one stone and make my December movie one I was going to watch for my 2013 list anyway: the summer's second biggest disaster, M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth. Then we'll start 2014 with a new series I'll tell you about later on. It should be an interesting one.

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