Thursday, June 9, 2016

Theory Thursday: "The Lone Ranger" (2013) is Underrated

Scene from The Lone Ranger
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: June 9 is Johnny Depp's birthday.
Theory: The Lone Ranger (2013) is underrated.

In 2015, director Stephen Spielberg went on record as stating that superhero movies will go the way of the western. To many, that seemed like an ill-informed statement suggesting that the genre would disappear entirely. Of course, this is generally how westerns nowadays are perceived anyways, as there's limited exceptions (2010's True Grit) to modern versions succeeding. In fact, the last major studio western (not including the upcoming remake of The Magnificent Seven) was itself such a notorious bomb that many noted it as one of the first major tumbling blocks for cinema's previous Midas touch actor Johnny Depp. Director Gore Verbinski had successfully taken Depp to the high seas with several Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and the question was if he could take that magic to the old west. The truth was that it went the way of the 90's remake of Wild Wild West and became a gigantic bomb that was more ridiculed than seen. Are westerns irrelevant? In terms of big blockbuster culture, The Lone Ranger would seem to think so.

While the film received two technical Oscar nominations, it racked up five Razzie nominations and won for Worst Rip-off, Remake, or Sequel. Depp and Verbinski also got in on the action, and it was nominated for Worst Picture. Depending on how much stock you put into the perennial basher of awards shows, this is either a testament to its failure, or simply an excuse to pick on low hanging fruit. After all, Depp hasn't necessarily done phenomenal work in the years since (Mortdecai, anyone?). Yet there is something that is damning about his most recent career that goes beyond the unfortunate martial squabbles and straight back to his career. Alice Through the Looking Glass opened with an abysmal box office. A bad opening is bad, but what may have made it sting a little more is that pundits were quick to note that it opened with a worse gross than The Lone Ranger only three years previous. So while he has some merit left (Black Mass was passable at times), it seems like the glory days are over.

Yet I want to make a point that seems to be lobbied against the annuls of modern opinion. Despite being an outright failure, The Lone Ranger is an underrated film. It is by no means a masterpiece, but it may be the best work that he has done since 2007's Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and is a far cry from the "Worst movie ever" contender that most hail it as. Yes, it does seem unfortunate that casting resorted to placing a white actor in a Native American role. It' seven more bizarre that Depp's defense is that he was a fraction Native American. It is the kind of "white washing" that Hollywood has continually gotten flack for, even when it's done well with intention (Cloud Atlas). I don't condone this practice, though I am aware of the unfortunate financial component that makes it inevitable. Depp in 2013 was still a star and the film needed to open big to compensate its big box office. Armie Hammer wouldn't do that. He was in The Social Network and Mirror Mirror prior: two films greatly removed from the bombastic blockbuster nature of Verbinski.

Of course, the film had always seemed like an uphill battle beyond the racial casting fiasco. As mentioned, nobody was making westerns because they weren't going to make money. Of course, nobody was going to see pirate movies until Pirates of the Caribbean, so the gamble in theory made sense. The results however weren't met with a fairness. There were several great set pieces that involved trains and witty dialogue. Still, The Lone Ranger was a summer film in which Depp had a dead bird on his head and looked indistinguishable or appealing. The film is rich with problematic elements. However, it may be one of the more ambitious films released in the past few summers that was not named Mad Max: Fury Road. It was a film that put adventure first, and the results are astounding.

While it seems easy to equate The Lone Ranger to Verbinski's pirate franchise, I think that it owes some debt to director Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes series. The Robert Downey Jr. movies may have their history in traditional British mystery stories where people stand around with pipes and smoke, but the addition of action and wit made it one of the more intriguing adaptations of a franchise that's lasted longer than anyone could deduce. Sure, The Lone Ranger's legacy may be far shorter - based on radio plays and a TV series - but it does feel like it evolved on the perceived understanding of the character. In the early days, The Lone Ranger was your typical western with heroes riding into towns and solving crime. In 2013, it would have the benefit of being in a post-Spielberg landscape where adventure and technology would be more prevalent and impressive. The only thing that hasn't changed is how charming the characters could be with a little wit.

To a large extent, the biggest appeal of Verbinski's take is that he realizes what makes the character intriguing while building on the idea of what a western could be with a studio budget. Yes, the film is packed with a lot of character scenes where people talk or get themselves into peril that bloats the running time. However, Verbinski knows how to build to what makes westerns inevitably work. It's about the intricacies that lead to the final robbery in which the iconic theme is redone impressively by Hans Zimmer. With the film's greatest sequence taking place in the third act and involving trains and ladders, it becomes thrilling in the way that most westerns could only dream about. It is allowed to be daring and kinetic in a way that should serve as a reminder as to why westerns were so intriguing. Sure, there have been many great train robberies before, but Verbinski's feels like one of the few who gets away with sheer ambition on a grandiose scale. Add in some dynamite and some fluid camerawork, and you get a film that captures the viewer at its best moments.

Of course, the film is difficult to properly assess in an era where Civil Rights are far more evolved. While the film eventually ends on a note of The Lone Ranger being a history lesson, seeing the various actions taken against Native Americans may strike some as unpleasant. True, it was part of American history. True, even the best westerns used Native Americans as the villain. I'd like to believe that the choice for Verbinski to sympathize and address this issue in a blockbuster is itself an interesting subtext, and one that could've helped to reinvent the western for the better. The only irony is still Depp, whose "white washing" remains too problematic for some. Despite it all, Depp gives a good enough performance and Hammer remains in particular an underrated actor who should have a tad more impressive of a career by now.

I don't intend to leave you calling The Lone Ranger a masterpiece, but it is one of the most underrated films of recent years. Even Quentin Tarantino agrees. I admit that it is at times boring or even problematic, but great cinema should be able to be scrappy at times. This is a film that, for all its faults, has great action set pieces and brings to life the western in a way that feels honest. What it does wrong, it does so in interesting ways. What it does correctly shows why Verbinski continues to get work and has quite the impressive box office track record, this film notwithstanding. It is what western cinema could be if it was more marketable, and that alone adds a singular appeal to its existence. It isn't even the best western of recent years (that may be Slow West), but it is one of the few that achieves the unthinkable simply because it doesn't have to shoot on the fly as it were. It is allowed to have fun.

It may be increasingly difficult to assess Depp's career in 2016, especially with every film feeling less and less special. I don't know that I am excited in the least for whatever else he has this year. However, I do think that he still is an intriguing actor with the right material, choosing to mold into his character by mixing eccentricity with seriousness. If The Lone Ranger was released 10 years prior, there's no denying that the film would've gotten a better reputation. However, it does feel in part that the backlash came because of certain taboos that were forming around 2013. I do look forward to the day when Depp turns in another phenomenal performance, as there's nobody like him. However, I do believe that it hasn't been that long since his last actually good movie. It's only been three years. 

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