Wednesday 21 August 2013

Into the sunset: some thoughts on the failure of "The Lone Ranger"

It's a rare sound: that of a major summer event movie landing with a clunk on these shores, having already been dismissed as a stone-cold flop in the US. (It's why most major releases now come out day-and-date across the globe, in a bid to limit not just piracy, but the spread of any negative noise.) Even if Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger cleans up overseas and breaks even on its reported $250m budget - as these saturation releases tend to - it's clear we're in what one might call Howard the Duck territory here: a film pushing a formerly popular schlockbuster aesthetic to such a degree that it's left its intended audience behind. I caught The Lone Ranger at a matinee screening one week after it opened at the height of the summer holidays, and counted only seven other patrons in the 300-seat auditorium, a situation that almost certainly wouldn't have been the case had I paid to see one of Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean sequels seven days after its release.

For starters, one might note that it's hardly surprising the film didn't strike much of a chord with the Pirates crowd. Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, drunk on their earlier successes, are here essentially trying to revive a property from their youth that the ten-to-seventeen year old kids who skulk round the modern multiplex wouldn't have the faintest clue about. And where the Pirates films proferred a clean, bloodless, family-friendly kind of pantomime - epitomised in Johnny Depp's terminally fey Jack Sparrow - this is a Western (hardly a banker genre nowadays), with mud, blood and prostitutes: if not the full Deadwood, then still destined to cue some delicate conversations on the way home. (These things are tested up the wazoo to avoid crossing that danger line that separates the 12A from the less commercial 15 rating - but in the scenes involving Helena Bonham Carter's one-legged brothel madam, I was reminded of Howard the Duck's incongruous titty shots.)

And that's before you factor in the blockbuster bloat: who has time to pack the kids into the car and drive out to watch these things any more? Back in the 90s, old-timey revivals made like Maverick or Wild Wild West, and packed whatever thrills and spills they had into two hours; yet the Pirates and Transformers movies, compiled by dick-measuring Hollywood alphas, proved that you could toss flabby, near-three hour cuts of these films into cinemas - in theory limiting them to three shows a day - and somehow rake in more money yet. Nowadays, these movies are routinely constructed on the scale of theme parks - The Lone Ranger even opens in one, establishing a needless wraparound story with Depp's aging Tonto - no matter that they risk closing within a week. Despite the dollars these blockbusters have made over the past decade, it's not the soundest of business models, and the studios' persistence with this format takes no notice of the changing entertainment landscape: if I were a 16-year-old being offered a lumbering 150-minute resuscitation of a property I hadn't heard of, I might stay at home flashing my genitals to strangers on Chatroulette, too.

But let's play nice for a while, and acknowledge that The Lone Ranger is, at least, a well-crafted failure. Bruckheimer, who was caught hedging his bets three years ago with the mid-range one-two of Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, has gone all in here, sparing no horses in his expensive widescreen recreations of Western outposts and the railroads that were starting to connect them. In Verbinski, whose best work (Mouse Hunt, Rango) has always leant towards the cartoonish, he's stayed loyal to a director who realises that all the really fun stuff in blockbusters - the scenes and moments you come away buzzing about - are most often live-action sight gags, bodies or objects hurtling through the air at tremendous, physics-defying speeds. And you get some of that here: in the early train derailment that ends up scattering railroad workers and popping the lines off a row of telegraph poles - the heroes are saved from certain death by a fortuitously placed spigot - and then again in the closer set-piece that does it all over again, on an even bigger scale, some two-and-a-bit hours later.

I wanted to praise The Lone Ranger for such old-school dynamism - not least as many of my nearest and dearest are currently pitched up in the revisionist camp - yet, while it's overall far less egregiously soul-sapping than the Pirates sequels, I found the momentum and invention slipping out of it disappointingly early on. By the time Hans Zimmer's score burst into its forty-seventh round of Morriconisms, approximately an hour in, I was longing to watch a proper Western, with ideas and conviction, and not this apologetic postmodern pastiche, which defaults on all the basic pleasures of story and character, and has to keep reframing itself just to fill up the swollen running time. Bruckheimer used to have access to the best script doctors in America, who were capable of patching and repackaging even the sketchiest and most defective of product; here, alas, almost all the gags fall terribly flat, and its wisps of subtext are blown away, rather than developed, by the next gust of on-screen activity.

It didn't help that I was left time to mentally recast the leading man three times over. We got two Armie Hammers in 2010's The Social Network, of course, where he acted opposite himself as the Winklevoss twins, and his WASPiness made sense. Here, however, he is very much alone, possessed of the square jaw that presumably wowed in pre-production costume tests, yet not as yet the comic chops, or the ability to pitch a performance to match this production's overwhelming scale. His Lone Ranger is more of a non-entity than the script's one mildly subversive notion required him to be: I wanted Brendan Fraser, circa those silly Mummy films, or perhaps Nathan Fillion, were his particular gifts not being squandered in Joss Whedon's home movies, or - and this is the surest sign of how little my rapidly backtracking mind was engaged - Gabriel Macht, had The Spirit not sunk his leading-man career. The Lone Ranger is the movie that made me remember The Spirit.

Sets without soul, then, sunsets without significance. In the end, what we're confronted with here is a lavish shell: a theme park no-one much wanted to visit, every bit as much a ghost town as those cinemas now showing it. Sure, you get a handful of funny diversions rattling round inside it - Depp's increasingly lifeless pantomiming is shown up by the wild energy of Harry Treadaway (Harry Treadaway!) as the kind of snaggletoothed goon who, when faced with a door, would rather throw himself headfirst out of the window - but it does rattle, in the manner of any other malfunctioning consumer product, and it's a long, mostly unedifying, increasingly deathly rattle. Set it next to Speed Racer on that list of semi-interesting yet understandably doomed event movies you won't necessarily feel the need to revisit in any great hurry, and be thankful for this: at least this way we won't have to suffer through any sequels.

The Lone Ranger is - still, just about - in cinemas nationwide.

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