Who is that masked man -- fighting for truth, justice and the American way?
It's Tonto, and he's fighting more for the Native American way than for his unfaithful white companion in Gore Verbinski's marathon version of "The Lone Ranger."
Forgive the mix-and-match superhero metaphors, but this "Ranger" is a real switcheroo, starting with Johnny Depp's daring decision to play Tonto instead of the legendary L.R. himself.
3 stars = Good
Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter.
PG-13 for intense action sequences and violence, and some suggestive material.
Tonto means "foolish" in Spanish (his name is changed to Toro in Latin America). But this Tonto is no fool, even if he periodically acts like one. Mr. Depp's fondness for bizarre, extravagant makeup knows no bounds: The cracked white-face Pagliacci war paint makeup -- topped off by a large dead bird -- covers so much of his head and face as to make him virtually unrecognizable.
Tonto's mask, in other words, constitutes much more of a disguise than the Masked Man's.
Speaking of whom, you've gotta pity poor Armie Hammer in the downsized title role. For obvious star-casting and billing reasons, Tonto's promotion from sidekick to co-equal (as well as narrator) comes with a politically correct backstory to augment his own and his Ranger's revenge fantasies.
In those thrilling days of yesteryear 1869, as reinvented by screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, a band of Texas Rangers led by Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) -- with Reid's newly deputized "peacenik" lawyer-brother John -- sets out to recapture vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).
How evil is Butch? So evil, there's no need to eat your heart out -- he'll do it for you. Butch goes not just ballistic but also cannibalistic when his gang ambushes and massacres the Rangers.
Ah, but a lone ranger, John Reid -- left for dead -- survives and, discovered by a white "spirit horse," is nursed (grudgingly) back to health by a lone Indian. If they can get over their mutual antipathy, they'll be looking to find Butch and to thwart the greedy capitalist railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson) he's in league with.
This isn't your father's or grandfather's "Lone Ranger" -- the one that began in 1933 on WXYZ radio in Detroit and moved to TV with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in the late 1940s. Director Verbinski gives it a framing device in the form of a little boy (Mason Cook) who stumbles onto a surreal Wild West sideshow exhibit. He also gives it a lot nastier violence and even a bunch of rabid rabbits.
But it's a hoot, thanks to the best American actor of his generation. Mr. Depp has as many whimsical eccentricities here as ever, including a few residual Jack Sparrow moves. And that deceased bird on his head has to be fed regularly. Is it just me, or is this a comedy?
"It's just you," most real Native Americans would say. Putting Jingles in charge of Wild Bill Hickok is tasteless. Butch is captured and semi-killed but returns, unfazed, so many times -- complete with fizzling dynamite fuses -- he's like Wile E. Coyote. His kinky gang includes crossdressers as well as cannibals (evidently the only two minority groups left that you're allowed to pick on). Tonto and the L.R. are chained together like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones" -- but comically.
Mr. Depp does try hard to get in touch with his Native American side, but his natural playfulness (and deadpan delivery) lacks the stolid dignity of, say, Jay Silverheels, and the Indian lore contained in the film is a tribal mishmash.
Mr. Hammer is a bit too reticent and too pretty -- too little and too late energized -- to be heroic, let alone superheroic. Helena Bonham Carter's one-legged madam (with a convertible WMD) is a funny Mae West takeoff, set in a madhouse of a brothel with girls swinging from ceiling fans! Ruth Wilson has the thankless role of Rebecca, the L.R.'s much-adored sister-in-law. Barry Pepper does a last Custeresque stand as Cavalry Capt. Jay Fuller.
It's Silver who deserves an Oscar -- Best Supporting Quadruped ever seen, hooves down -- riding the roofs as well as the rails, in highly surreal action moments. ("There's something very wrong with that horse," Tonto observes.)
The location cinematography, shot around the incredible rock formations of Utah's Monument Valley, where many of the great John Ford Westerns were filmed, is terrific. So are the sound effects and the train derailments.
FYI: There's just a hint of Rossini's "William Tell Overture" -- until the grand finale, when it finally bursts forth. (My mother told me the music was about a boy whose dad shot an apple off his head with a bow and arrow -- convincing me that Rossini was a cowboy composer.) The scoring -- and themes and variations -- of Hans Zimmer are remarkably rousing.
Word of advice: Heed the PG-13 rating. With its 21/2-hour, $250 million excess of plots and subplots, this isn't for small children. On the other hand, it's a silver bullet for boredom if you want escapist fireworks, other than Zambelli's, on the Fourth.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: email@example.com. First Published July 3, 2013 4:00 AM