One of the biggest question marks of the summer is Disney‘s colossal “The Lone Ranger” reboot. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, the epic western looks to contemporize the thirties pulp hero for modern audiences, with Armie Hammer donning the mask and white hat of the titular Ranger, with Johnny Depp, once again in kabuki make-up, assuming the role of Tonto, the Ranger’s Native American sidekick and trusted friend. It’s a big risk (like $250 million big) to spend so much money on a genre that has more or less been regulated to the sidelines. But last night at a special presentation in New York, Disney (along with Bruckheimer and Hammer, who were on hand for the event) previewed twenty minutes of footage from the movie, and made it known that “The Lone Ranger” can easily compete with all the superheroes and comic book movies the summer of 2013 has to offer.
The presentation started with Bruckheimer addressing the small audience and noting that the footage was “very rough… But we are very confident, or we wouldn’t be showing it to you.” He then went on a rambling explanation of the scenes that preceded the ones we were about to watch – something about an outlaw and a train (honestly, devoid of context, Bruckheimer might as well have been reciting the phone book). The short of it is that the footage opened with Hammer’s John Reid (not yet the Lone Ranger) chained to Johnny Depp’s Tonto as they try to flee a runaway train. They climb on top of the train and try to outrun some bandits. Some of this footage can be seen in the trailer, like when Hammer lifts his arms and gets hitched to a signpost, swinging off the train and then back again.
The sequence showcased director Verbinski’s penchant for Rube Goldberg-esque action sequences, with one obstacle butting up against another (quite violently). This bit of footage climaxed in a moment when John’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), shows up with a squad of Texas Rangers. Noticing that the rails aren’t finished yet (they’re being worked on by a bunch of scruffily outfitted extras), they try to disengage the train cars from the locomotive engine, so that nobody gets hurt. That’s where the amazing shot of Depp underneath the train as it becomes uncoupled comes from – and it got a kind of awestruck laugh out of the audience. Tonto and John Reid are on the crashing locomotive, and they get flung and nearly killed by flying debris and the train itself.
Right after, we got a brief scene of Reid delivering Tonto to the local jail. That’s where John sees Dan’s wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), who was John’s former flame. The moment is actually quite tender and bittersweet, with an unexpected emotional resonance (especially when John is introduced to Dan’s young son). “You look just like your father did at that age,” John says. There’s a wonderful moment where John walks outside to meet Dan and Dan’s son views Tonto doing some kind of spirit chant from within his jail cell. It’s slow and incredibly weird – a Verbinski flourish that makes the entire sequence richer.
When John goes outside, Dan is there with his crew. He tells John that they’re going to go round up whoever was responsible for whatever happened on the train (again – it was a little hard to tell what, exactly, was going on). Dan tosses John a badge and deputizes him a Texas Ranger. John looks down in disbelief – the badge was their father’s. They go riding off in search of villains. The other members of the team make fun of John’s dandy attire and oversized hat. At one point they spot a lone white horse on a butte. Dan explains that the horse is known for shuttling spirits between this world and the next (he’s taken up some Native American spirituality, as is evidenced by the chain around his neck). John scoffs at the superstition.
There’s then a cut (again) and we see John wake up. This is a scene that has been teased endlessly in the trailers – he’s caked in some kind of ceremonial mud, and awakens on a huge platform high above the earth. When he gets down from the platform, he’s greeted by Tonto, who says that John came back from the dead after his brother and their posse were murdered – that same white horse has identified John as a “spirit walker,” one who cannot be killed by conventional weapons. He bemoans the fact that Dan wasn’t the one who came back and proposes that the two of them ride off in search of his brother’s killer, who was also responsible for the death of Tonto’s family.
What’s interesting is, after initial claims that “The Lone Ranger” contained supernatural elements and staunch denials by Disney, it looks like the supernatural stuff is still a part of the movie, at least tangentially. Tonto explains that the man they’re out for isn’t simply a man but rather a “wendigo,” a Native American monster. The monster disrupts the aura of those around them and turns them into similarly horrendous creatures, as is evident by the group of monster bunnies that surround their campfire. (The visual effects weren’t finished but the image of a peaceful bunny opening its mouth to reveal giant fangs was pretty startling nonetheless.)
In this one succinct scene virtually all of the Lone Ranger mythos is economically accounted for – his black leather mask is a swatch of leather from within Dan’s waistcoat (the two eyeholes are actually bullet holes from where he was killed), and Tonto takes his hat, shaping it into the iconic form, before handing him a single silver bullet, to kill the Wendigo. In this sequence, as in the earlier ones, the chemistry between Hammer and Depp is palpable – they’re a classically mismatched duo, like “Midnight Run” or “48 Hrs.” And it totally works. If the whole movie is the two of them shooting the shit, then that’d be fine with us.
It should also be noted that these scenes gave us a taste of Hans Zimmer‘s score for the movie (he quietly replaced the more experimental choice of Jack White at the end of last year, after scheduling conflicts forced White out), and the music sounds great – twangy, propulsive, not unlike his wonderful scores for Guy Ritchie‘s two “Sherlock Holmes” movies. Zimmer is a key Verbinski collaborator, and his scores for both “The Weather Man” and “Rango” rank amongst the composer’s very best. It sounds like this won’t be any different.
The presentation was capped off with the recently released theatrical trailer, which shows more of the scope and ambition of the movie, while setting forth on the railroad tracks this early footage provided. Quite frankly, it was wise of Disney to show more character-based sequences instead of merely slam bam action stuff, because without the character stuff, the action wouldn’t amount to much. This looks like Verbinski at the top of his game – full of quirky tics and grand visual embroidery. And for those worried about the trailer’s uneasy mix of humor and action, fear not – the two work beautifully here. The gags are funny without ever being too much (when Dan asks Tonto what his crime is, he stoically answers: “Indian”). The audience was really loving it, too, and from what we understand from people who have seen it, it’s just as much breathless fun as Verbinski and Bruckheimer’s original “Pirates of the Caribbean” was. It’s enough to put our fears to rest – “The Lone Ranger” seems like the real deal, and just as much of a potential heavy-hitter as anyone else wearing a cape or tights this summer.
“The Lone Ranger” opens July 3rd.