Johnny Depp used to have movie buffs in the palm of his hand. Here was a too-pretty-to-be-true movie star who, instead of gravitating toward safe choices, hid his face behind funky makeup and facial hair. Even when he starred in a blockbuster franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean, it was in a role that few other stars would touch, let alone play the way he did.
But lately, Depp has been mired in his own eccentricity. While there are plenty of things wrong with The Lone Ranger, his performance is the most grating flaw.
The film begins with a wizened old Tonto (Depp) telling a young boy how he came to know John Reid (Armie Hammer) in 1869 Texas. A dandyish district attorney, Reid arrives in a small railroad town where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a Texas Ranger. Dan has married John's childhood sweetheart, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), but that doesn't keep the siblings from joining forces to track down a murderous fugitive named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). John and Tonto also become uncomfortable partners during the search for Cavendish, and John takes to wearing a black mask and riding a white horse.
The Lone Ranger marks the latest collaboration between Depp and director Gore Verbinski, who oversaw the first three Pirates films and the funky animated western Rango. They desperately try to recapture those films' comic-adventure lightning in a bottle. And they actually succeed during a meticulously choreographed shoot-'em-up scene. Unfortunately, it comes after more than two hours of nonsense.
Verbinski takes nothing seriously, presuming that a straightforward take on the iconic hero would be too square for 2013 audiences. But he doesn't develop the characters enough: It's hard to truly care about the relationship between John and Dan, or what separated John and Rebecca, or the tragedy that drives Tonto.
Then there's Depp, whose portrayal of Tonto would be an insult to cinema no matter what you think about a white guy playing a Comanche. His part consists of nothing but smart-ass remarks about his new partner and bug-eyed reaction takes. Verbinski makes sure we understand the zaniness of everything we're seeing. Positing Tonto as an addled, dead-bird-feeding PTSD case feels like an excuse to let Depp do any ridiculous thing he wants with the character.
So why is The Lone Ranger such a catastrophe, when at least some of the Pirates films made a similar formula work? Because in those films, Jack Sparrow was reacting to ghost ships and sea monsters. Though the Lone Ranger has mystical abilities, he's not responding to an out-of-this-world threat. And Tonto doesn't deliver wisecracks because it makes sense. It's because that's all Johnny Depp wants to invest in a character anymore.