Fifteen years ago, screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio contributed to the screenplay for a big Hollywood swashbuckler set in the Old West. At that screenplay’s fore was the relationship between an old master with a deeply personal connection to a long ago injustice and the incompetent but brave man who can make vengeance possible by learning the ways of vigilante justice, by standing for the oppressed while riding his trusty steed behind a black mask. That screenplay became the well-received, fondly remembered Antonio Banderas vehicle The Mask of Zorro, a film that clearly adored its source material, those old radio serials and black-and-white television episodes about a masked man bringing justice to the chaotic and corrupt West. But it also wanted to bring a touch of that Raiders of the Lost Ark spirit to the proceedings, allowing some tongue-in-cheek humor, humanizing fallibility, and modern Hollywood pacing to spice up all that old-fashioned derring-do.
Zorro isn’t perfect, but it’s entertaining as hell– sexy (that swordfight in the barn, ay!) yet old-fashioned, melodramatic yet briskly-paced, able to laugh at itself but also respectful of the suffering of its minority characters. Some of that can be attributed to the incredible stunt-work and a great cast and score, but a lot of that credit goes to Rossio and Elliot; these two men, who also co-wrote the Pirates films and the first Shrek, have cornered the market on putting fresh, cheeky spins on old, dying genres: the pirate film, the fairy tale, and, yes, the masked vigilante film. (People seem to forget that, when Zorro came out, masked vigilantism wasn’t exactly burning up the big screen; the same year that Zorro was released, Batman and Robin seemingly killed the prospects of the superhero film for decades to come; in my opinion, Zorro was as much a part of making the X-Men and Spiderman films possible as Blade was.)
Zorro started all that. Perhaps in tribute, fifteen years later, Elliot and Rossio have co-written pretty much the same film. They’ve just pulled in a different pulp hero. In the intervening years, I think it is safe to say they’ve lost some of their touch.
I went into The Lone Ranger having read a lot of criticism of the film that lamented its tone, its length, and its poor quality. That’s not good, but like all of you, bad criticism isn’t a dealbreaker for me. I also hated the trailers. Still not a good sign, but the trailers did tell me one thing: I knew there was a chance that with this team, and this approach (hip-to-be-square take on dying genre), I might get something akin to The Mask of Zorro. And I was right: The Lone Ranger is exactly like The Mask of Zorro! If The Mask of Zorro were made with utter contempt for the genre in which the original pulp stories were told… And if Johnny Depp kept running across the screen in facepaint and ruining the remotely condonable parts of the movie.
The Lone Ranger is a deeply offensive film, and the offense has very little to do with racism, though that has been a much discussed facet of the beating it has taken. I will not argue with any Native American (or any human) who finds something wrong with this film’s take on the most prominent Native American character (who is not also a sexy werewolf) that Hollywood has seen in decades, though I think it’s fair to grant Rossio and Elliot this: their film does a fair job of showing that this Tonto guy, feeding his dead crow and nattering on about a spirit horse in broken English, is not crazy and colorful because he’s Native American but because he is a tragically broken man. (Though The Lone Ranger, in one of its few salient points, argues the two may be one in the same. That’s one thing you can say about the approach here – it subverts and humorizes genocide in the most insane, unkosher ways, but it doesn’t sugarcoat!) What should be more offensive, not just to Native Americans, but to everyone who likes movies and humanity and justice for underrepresented minorities, is that the most prominent Native American character in decades has to be promoted to the world in a film that is this astoundingly bad. And to add insult to injury, that character isn’t the noble center of an otherwise messy movie; the agent of chaos, the catalyst that causes the beaker to explode, the worm at the center of the apple, is Tonto himself.
Just as all the credit for the success of Zorro and Shrek and the first two Pirates films cannot go solely to Rossio and Elliot, the abject failure of the last two Pirates films (critically) and especially The Lone Ranger (in every conceivable way) cannot be blamed solely on the guys with the typewriters. Along the way, Rossio and Elliot have added director Gore Verbinski and movie star Johnny Depp to their posse… or more accurately, Rossio and Elliot have been conscripted into Depp’s outlaw gang as unwitting accomplices. Depp begged to make this film a reality – begged to have the representational Native American issues placed upon his shoulders, begged to retell the old myth with a new twist – and with the captain goes his ship. Depp made this film possible, and he makes its ruination a certainty.
Based on all this would you believe I liked and admired the first half hour of this film? Would you believe that, before Tonto and Silver team up to “bring John Reid back from the dead,” bringing with them the sozzled, off-kilter spirit of Captain Jack Sparrow, without any of the fun, mystery, or adventure that character surprised us with, I was enjoying the introduction of this cast of careworn Western tropes?
What I was seeing was a deeply square movie, in the way that The Mummy films are square but also kind of cool. This film had a referential respect for the history of the Western genre and an emotional narrative, told with care and diligence. What broke my heart was, the film knows it’s playing it mostly straight at his point, finding its center of gravity in the stoic Texas Ranger played by James Badge Dale. It consciously wants to be a classic Western up to this point so that, when the classic Western hero dies (and gets his heart eaten!), the classic Western will die with him, from its ashes rising a revisionist comedy with the kooky Indian sidekick as the secret protagonist, and the Ranger’s sissy brother as the stooge in a mask. There is a conscious decision to make a gold old-fashioned Western and then, in order to send a message, to just… stop doing that. A bad buddy comedy in a cowboy hat ensues.These two guys make with the banter, telling a whorehouse madam they’ll have to shut her down because of “health code violations.” A magic horse prances in a tree after an entire tribe of Comanche is massacred, and Tonto, fresh off mourning his people (not days but seconds later), gets a punchline. A bad punchline! The Lone Ranger gets his head dragged through a pile of horse excrement. That about sums up how this movie feels about the narrative of the traditional Western hero.
And the trope deserves some criticism, of course. It is tied the oppression of an entire repressed and disenfranchised minority in the same way that so many pieces of pop culture ephemera from our past (and admit it, our present) are. It’s not the message that I abhor. It’s the approach. Depp’s take on empowering the Native American in the Western narrative features all the balletic grace of a hippo in a tutu. And not the hippo from Fantasia. A real hippo.
The main mantra of this film is “Wrong Brother.” The film even retrofits the definition of kemosabe to mean “wrong brother.” And this credo is repeated over and over again throughout the film. “It shouldn’t have been you John Reid,” everyone seems to say, disappointed that the shrieking lawyer is riding around meting out justice, “it should have been your brother.” By the end of the film of course, everyone tells John that it’s okay, he did just fine, but it’s not true. “Wrong Brother” couldn’t be a truer way of expressing what makes this the worst film of the year so far.
Based on twenty minutes of this film alone, I will watch Badge Dale as the trusty sheriff in every Western from here to eternity if given the opportunity. Hollywood, make it so! It’s not that Armie Hammer is insufficient filling his shoes; the film doesn’t even try to make the argument he comes close. This is a film about the square white man needing to unlearn his selfish, massacring whiteness. Badge Dale, who, in his short time on the screen, makes the hero (not the anti-hero but the hero) seem relevant again, could never have fit into this film’s agenda, and that’s a pity. The film seems to think so too.
Depp’s Tonto wants so desperately to see what James Badge Dale’s character would have done behind the mask that it becomes a self-fulfilling wish: even if we’re not thinking about it consciously, we kind of do too. It’s one of the few times where the main character in a film doesn’t want to be watching this version of his story any more than you do.