When we first meet Lone-Ranger-in-training, John Reid (Armie Hammer), he has no mask, no horse, and no hint of a sidekick. Fresh out of law school, he’s traveling to his hometown with an ideal of justice that—like his dandy suit—seems to have no place in the Wild West.
But if he’s coming to save the day, our hero may already be too late. Town father and railroad tycoon, Cole (Tom Wilkerson), declares he’s already instituted law and order. To prove that point, he’s bringing captive outlaw Butch Cavendish to town on the same train to be hanged that very day.
Fortunately for our hero-to-be, bandits on horseback intervene. Commandeering the train, they fleece the passengers, free Butch, and send the locomotive hurtling toward destruction. Insert bugle roll! Hi-ho, Silver—uh, not so fast. A Western version of Don Quixote in this tale, John Reid grabs the nearest weapon he can find (a shovel), barges in after the bad guys … and quickly ends up reaching for the sky.
Thankfully, though, a real hero is on board: Comanche warrior, Tonto, played by white-faced, crow-headed Johnny Depp. Shackled together by fate, Tonto and his side-kick ultimately manage to survive the day, if not save it. From that point, it’s Tonto’s unhappy job to lead the Lone Ranger into his place in history. Together, the dynamic duo will have to take on the railroad industry, the American Cavalry, a gang of outlaws—even the idea of progress itself—to bring real justice to the West.
Told from Tonto’s perspective, the overall viewing experience is highly amusing. There are plenty of gun-slinging and chase scenes, and a love story between Reid and his brother’s wife makes for virtuous entertainment. Plus, as in their Pirates of the Caribbean partnerships, Depp and director Gore Verbinski here breathe new life into media cliches. Though Tonto still speaks pidgin English, Depp’s outlandish garb and superb (often hilarious) acting make him the real star of the show—a fact that imbues even the movie’s title with irony. (After all, the hero is supposedly a LONE Ranger.)
But viewers who can unhitch mentally from the rollicking fun will find the movie is freighted with political and spiritual baggage. It largely glorifies Native American cultures (especially Comanche spiritual practices and beliefs) while Christianity and Western culture take a beating. In some ways, that means it’s more honest than earlier versions of The Lone Ranger. Conflict between Tonto and the titular hero displays cultural differences, including the law man’s insistence on justice carried out by a civil authority, as opposed to Tonto’s belief it’s something a man takes whenever he can.
But from the preacher who runs Tonto out of town (hatefully calling him a heathen) to Cole’s hypocritical prayers, Christianity is presented as a religion of greed and ignorance. Tonto, on the other hand, is a noble “spirit warrior” and serves as a priest to the Lone Ranger, providing him with Native spiritual tokens and insight. As evil white men betray all decency, when the Lone Ranger finally dons his mask, it symbolizes his rejection of Western culture.
With Disney’s stamp of approval and a PG-13 rating for intense action, some sexually suggestive material, as well as a slight amount of language and gore, my guess is that there’s no putting the brakes on this so-called family friendly flick. But for those who value The Lone Ranger’s origins, the film’s cultural messages threaten to derail the fun.