THE LONE RANGER – Blu-ray review

Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski conspired to reinvent the pirate movie, so why would it surprise anyone that they’d give a complete makeover to the legend of “The Lone Ranger”?

Zane Grey fans point to his novel, The Lone Star Ranger, as the origin, but for most of the world it was the radio melodrama that began in 1933, or the comic books the show inspired. And for Baby Boomers there simply WAS no Lone Ranger before Clayton Moore galloped across the small screen from 1949-1957, rearing up his horse at the end of every episode to shout “Hi-Yo Silver, Away!” When it came time for neighborhood kids to play cowboys and Indians, playmates were just as quick to call “dibs” on Tonto (Jay Silverheels) as they were the guy he called Ke-mo-sah-bee . . . which the series told us meant something like “trusted friend.”

According to the legend that the radio series and TV show were based on, the Lone Ranger was John Reid, who rode into a box canyon with his brother and other Texas Rangers in pursuit of the Butch Cavendish gang—who lay in wait and ambushed them, killing everyone and leaving Reid for dead. Enter Tonto, who helps him recover, and soon the masked man dedicated to avenging those Rangers by fighting for truth, justice, and the American way is riding across the West with his faithful Indian companion, rounding up bad guys in every episode.

When Verbinski and a trio of screenwriters (including Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise) begin with the premise that John Reid is a lawyer and anti-gun crusader and brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a man’s man kind of Ranger, it serves as the set-up to a punch line. Tonto later finds the dead Rangers, John included, and puts them in open graves, after which a white spirit horse thought to be able to bring someone back from the dead focuses on John, despite Tonto’s efforts to flag him over to brother Dan instead.  After John is fully recovered and their reluctant partnership begins, Tonto keeps calling him Ke-mo-sah-be until John finally asks what it means. “Wrong brother,” Depp-as-Tonto deadpans.

That pretty much sets the tone and narrative approach for this big-screen reboot. Like “Pirates,” there are supernatural elements, super-sinister villains, eyebrow-raising stunts, and two heroes that, together, do what Depp did as Capt. Jack Sparrow—calmly blundering through the mayhem and coming out at the end of each scrape or skirmish with a kind of befuddled confidence.

William Fichtner makes for a pretty darned scary and fiendish Butch Cavendish, and Helena Bonham Carter is as quirky as a madam with an ivory leg that shoots as she was playing Madame Thénardier in “Les Misérables” or the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland.”

The rest of the cast is totally convincing, and Jess Gonchor’s production design, Cheryl Carasik’s set decoration, and Penny Rose’s costume design bring to life a Wild West that’s just a little wilder than usual . . . and just a little bolder, both in color and in pushing the traditional historical envelope. Traditionalists might wince, but it really does invigorate the story. And as we saw in the “Pirates” movies, here too are outlandish stunts that deliberately push the limits of credibility. That will be perceived as a strength by some, and a weakness by others.

But I deliberately began with the film’s positives because I think critics overstepped their bounds with this title. A gang of them pounced on “The Lone Ranger” and pronounced it a bomb way before it even played in theaters, and that built to a buzz that drove people away and cost the studio millions. Is that fair? Not at all. In fact, I think it’s irresponsible. Just as referees shouldn’t determine the outcome of a game, critics shouldn’t decide what films succeed.

There is much good to say about this outrageous reboot of “The Lone Ranger.” But there are also flaws that keep it from being totally successful, starting with a frame story that just doesn’t make sense. Tonto comes to life in a museum diorama and tells the true story of the Lone Ranger to a small boy dressed like the Masked Man? Come on! Everyone gathered around the TV set pronounced it stupid, and if I hadn’t coaxed my son to give the film a chance he would have been long gone. I also think that it was ill-advised to take a page from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and have John be such an anti-gun guy, because at least Jimmy Stewart stuck by his (anti)guns and remained true to his principles, while the Lone Ranger is pushed into an unreasonably quick turnaround because of this plot device.

Likewise, a very un-heroic side plot about John coveting his brother’s wife (and vice versa) isn’t developed enough, so why have it in the first place? Just to humanize the guy? Tonto has enough jokes at his expense to accomplish that, so it’s really unnecessary. In my book these things take a film that could have been a 7 or 8 out of 10 and knock it down to a 6—not the bomb that audiences were warned against.

My guess is that critics who grew up with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels and had it fixed in their brains exactly what The Lone Ranger and Tonto should look like were outraged that Depp and Hammer dressed and acted nothing like them. And they punished the filmmakers for it.

But younger audiences coming to it with fresh eyes and no baggage will respond to it differently, and it’s a zestful Western that might reveal the secrets of what future filmmakers are going to have to do to preserve the genre.

“The Lone Ranger” looks sharp as can be without seeming overprocessed, with a color palette as bold as the concept and effects and strong black levels and edge delineation that helps to create a sense of 3-dimensionality. Presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, “The Lone Ranger” comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode that creates no significant issues. A little ghosting pops up now and then, but otherwise I saw nothing that reflected compression problems.

The featured audio is a room-crunching English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that distributes the sound so evenly that everything feels natural . . . and naturally loud and immersive. The bass has just the right amount of rumble and helps shape the explosions and steam locomotive action that account for the film’s blockbuster personality. But despite the LOUDNESS the dialogue is nicely prioritized. Additional audio options are English DVS Dolby Digital 2.0 and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

This combo pack comes with a DVD and Digital Copy, along with bonus features that are surprisingly few. Other than a blooper reel and deleted scene, there are just three extras:  “Riding the Rails of The Lone Ranger” (about filming the train sequences), “Armie’s Western Road Trip” (a diary-style recollection of filming in historic American Southwest locations), and “Becoming a Cowboy” (a look at the training actors went through at cowboy boot camp). They’re decent, but brief.

Bottom line:
How can a Western featuring a madam with a shooting ivory leg be as bad as critics warned? It’s not. And “The Lone Ranger,” for all its flaws, is still a fun popcorn movie.