Since his first appearance in 1933, he's galloped his way between radio, movies, books and television. His popularity led to a spin-off series starring a little character known as the Green Hornet, while his catchphrase ("Hi-ho Silver, away!") and theme music (the William Tell overture) have become permanent fixtures of the popular culture lexicon.
Given that pedigree, a Hollywood reboot of the adventures of the masked lawman known as the Lone Ranger was inevitable. Of course that purveyor of blockbluster bloat, Jerry Bruckheimer, saw it as a chance to launch a new Pirates of the Caribbean–like franchise. And of course his house star of the moment, Johnny Depp, signed on to bring his increasingly diluted quirkiness to the role of Tonto, Native American companion to our white-hat vigilante hero John Reid (Hammer, nondescriptly noble).
Credit where it's due, though: Both Depp (only sort of cashing a paycheck) and his not-untalented Pirates 1–3 director Gore Verbinski have a lot of fun with the story's setup. The promising opening scene, set in 1930s San Francisco, cleverly introduces Tonto as an aged attraction at a Wild West carnival exhibition (Depp rather movingly performs the role under what looks like a ton of Dustin Hoffman–in–Little Big Man prosthetics). He relates his and the Ranger’s often-convoluted adventures to a wide-eyed young audience of one, which establishes a nice air of innocence—it's telling that Verbinski explicitly references Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon (1956) in an early composition. But the childlike sense of wonder is almost immediately eliminated once the movie flashes back to the late-1800s Wild West.
Though his adeptness with throwaway gags suggests he could have been a superb Warner Bros. animator (there’s a particularly humorous one here involving vampire rabbits), summer tentpole morass tends to squash Verbinski's gifts. As in nearly all of his films, an overstuffed plot gets the better of him: There’s a mutilated and malevolent gunslinger (Fichtner, expectedly bringing the crazy) prowling the land. The transcontinental railroad is winding its way through the Monument Valley desert, a project overseen by a big-city businessman (Wilkinson) with clearly suspicious motivations. There's cold-blooded murder and declarations of vengeance, run-ins between the local Indians and the cavalry, a whorehouse madam with a wooden gun leg (Helena Bonham Carter, apparently on loan from an aborted Tim Burton project) a romantic interest and plenty of low comedy courtesy of Tonto's smirky training of his new partner. Reference is even made to Depp’s "stupid fucking" role in Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 acid Western Dead Man—minus the f-word, lest one offend the sensitive ears of the PG-13 multiplex demographic.
It's all too much and not enough—a succession of disparate, can-you-top-this episodes inelegantly piling up like skidding cars on a freeway. And that's not even taking into account the action scenes. Lord, those action scenes: Monotonous, loud and relentless, they're a punishing example of the self-satisfied, digitally augmented ephemera that typifies modern Hollywood moviemaking, and House Bruckheimer in particular.
When Tonto moves between two speeding locomotives with chamoislike agility or the Ranger leaps across the roofs of buildings and moving vehicles on his faithful steed, we never have any true sense of danger or exhilaration because everything is too uncannily seamless. Even if only at a subconscious level, we're all too aware we’re watching ones and zeroes slathered around performers making “oh shit!” faces at objects to be fully rendered later. This machine-tooled pomposity is all the more irritating for the few times Verbinski brings a genuine sense of invention to the proceedings (he shoots some of the Monument Valley locations with a comically askew eye that's equal parts Ford and Leone). Or for those rare moments when Depp and Hammer—tossing off a quip or flashing an ingratiating grin—show a flicker of the gleam-in-the-eye ranger spirit. Otherwise, "Kemosabe" and his faithful sidekick can't ride off into the sunset soon enough.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich