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The Western as tent-pole picture died last weekend under a barrage of exploded locomotive parts and dead Indians and general cluelessness. Gore Verbinski directed, Johnny Depp starred, Jerry Bruckheimer produced, Disney financed. On paper, "The Lone Ranger" could've been a frontier-times "Pirates of the Caribbean," which is presently spawning a fourth (!!) sequel. Instead it's a copycat crime to "John Carter," a property Disney dug up from the 1930s and tried to repackage for the 21st century. Disney has now blown more than half a billion dollars to get kids of the 2010s as geeked about a barbarian on Mars or about a masked Texas lawman as their great-grandparents did 80 years earlier.
Both throwbacks were thrown back. Audiences didn't turn out for this 2.5-hour literal train wreck, and those that did were uncommonly old for Disney movies. The title character, played by Armie Hammer (the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network"), brings an aw-shucksism best suited to either a prewar radio drama or a film in which the following do not happen: mass battlefield slaughter, the removal and consumption of a dying man's heart, a scalping, thinly veiled rape threats, a child finding his village plundered and burned, and other assorted atrocities that stretch the confines of a PG rating. This is in many ways a hardcore "Lone Ranger" without a hardcore Lone Ranger, and if kids aren't inspired to emulate a hero with a six-shooter these days, perhaps the better on 'em anyway. It isn't the '50s anymore, and any kid who unholsters a plastic Colt .45 at recess is asking for grown-up trouble.
The filmmakers were under suspicion of tone-deafness since casting Depp, who is a white dude, as Tonto, who is not a white dude. There's a long history of white dudes playing non-white dudes in movies, and to cast yet another white dude in a role of a non-white dude not only takes a job away from a non-white dude, it puts everyone in a position of watching a white dude do an impersonation of a non-white dude, which carries so much cultural freight in the United States of America that you never really shake the icks. Why, you could reply, we don't have a Native American actor with the wattage that Depp brings, so of course they cast the bankable star. To that I would reply, yes, that's true, but one reason we don't have such a star is that long ago white dudes killed many of the Indians whose great-great-great-grandchildren would've made a great Tonto. Seeing white people cast as Indians reminds me of those suburban subdivisions where developers cut down all the trees and then name the streets after them.
For what it's worth, Depp plays a fine Tonto, kind of a Jack Sparrow crossed with a mime. Tonto is designed as a character out of place and out of sorts — mystical, vengeful, absurd and aware. He's the perfect embodiment of "The Lone Ranger" at its madcap high points, but neither he, nor the canny casting of William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson as dark foils to Depp and Hammer, manages to salvage this hot mess. The story arc clearly aimed for this movie to work as an origin installment; we don't even hear the iconic "Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!" until just before the final credits. But barring some sort of miracle revival, this is probably the last we've seen of the Lone Ranger and Tonto for quite some time. The cowboys' time has come and gone, and the world again belongs to pirates.