Unreal Movie Review: The Lone Ranger is my Favorite Blockbuster of the Year (So Far)


Well, this is awkward.

As most of you probably know, The Lone Ranger basically tanked this weekend. From what I read/heard, it actually came in under Disney’s most pessimistic projections. Adding insult to injury, the critical community has basically labeled it the dud of the year from a quality standpoint, too.

So now I have to figure out how to reconcile this apparent consensus with my personal opinion that The Lone Ranger is really a rather good movie.

In fact, it’s my favorite blockbuster so far this year (he wrote before Pacific Rim and Elysium hit screens).

As I said, I realize I’m writing this in the shadow of reviews ranging from indifference to outright vitriole, plus a massively disappointing box office performance. But the issue isn’t that the movie is great and I’m upset that nobody likes it, the issue is that the vast majority of critics seem to not even be registering what the movie is actually doing.

This isn’t just a good dose of Dumb Fun, it’s a downright impressive movie.


We live in a full-fledged reboot culture. Unfortunately, it’s a culture that has manifested itself with a lack of vision, with filmmakers content to either parrot the successes of the past (The Thing, Star Trek Into Darkness) or modernize old material to fit current trends (Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-man).

Rarely, if ever, do these reboots actually take the unique opportunity to examine the original property and offer a commentary on it.

Yet that’s exactly what The Lone Ranger does.

Gore Verbinski has made a habit out of subverting expectations. It’s hard to remember now, but Pirates of the Caribbean was a shock success; a pirate movie based on an Disney attraction that miraculously generated one of the better adventure movies of the past decade. With Rango, Verbinski might have delivered the most aggressively ugly, bizarre children’s movie in American history. (At least, of the ones that were successful.)


Now, he’s taken his subversive approach to one of America’s good old-fashioned heroes, and the result is a movie with a lot more on its mind than most people have given it credit for.

The credit The Lone Ranger has actually received are adulations like, “Everything wrong with big budget blockbusters” and “a misfire on every level.” And these are writers I typically love.

I don’t see it at all. Rather, what I see is a movie that almost has more ambition than it knows what to do with, and I’ll take that almost any day over a movie with minor ambitions that manages to simply not offend anybody.

tonto and horse

One part of this movie that seems to have offended people the most is its tone. “Tonal nightmare” was a phrase that I feel cropped up quite a bit, with critics citing details like a gag with a horse wearing a cowboy hat coming shortly after a scene of, essentially, genocide. But again, Verbinski’s a subversive guy. He knows what BOTH of those scenes are accomplishing, and the juxtaposition is largely the point.

Even when it struggles to reconcile its ambitions, The Lone Ranger is still an island in the current sea of over-polished, monotonous blockbusters.

This is a bit of a strange comparison, but I was just as surprised to discover The Lone Ranger’s true intentions as I was when I saw Wall-E for the first time. Not that the two movies have anything obvious in common, but both are harsh, in-your-face satires wrapped in the package of a fun adventure movie.


Where Wall-E set its sights on modern conveniences and dehumanizing technology, The Lone Ranger goes after the problem with American mythmaking. Here’s a hero, ostensibly standing for justice, who in reality is a product of an almost inherently UNjust time of our history.

There’s a wonderfully sly bit at the end of the movie* that takes a dig at our tendency to label our own successes. Our attempts to write our own legends. If there’s anything the movie could use as a thesis statement, that’s it: Legends never tell the whole story.

Of course, to deliver this idea accurately, some shots have to be taken at the title character. In light of the way this movie dismantles the simple heroism of Reid’s Ranger figure, causing a lot of critics to feel that the good-hearted hero has been made the target of outright mockery. The movie’s approach, however, is far more nuanced than that.


At least in one sense.

Verbinski has said that part of the idea behind this movie was to take an old-fashioned, Jimmy Stewart type Western hero, throw him in a modern nihilistic take on the genre, and just sort of see what happened.

That’s really what happens to John Reid in this movie. He simply finds his values and approach to be inadequate to address the situation he finds himself in.

Really, the Lone Ranger isn’t even dethroned as a hero. By the end of the movie, he’s saving the day with the best of them; Reid even saves Tonto’s skin once or twice. John Reid is a hero in training, and his journey into the figure of myth we (or at least some of us) know today is charted out over the whole movie. By the end of it, he’s a figure fit for legend.

Notice, however, that he can only become that legend after he’s taken a good, honest look at the two-faced reality of the government and corporations he trusts at the movie’s start.

The Lone Ranger seems to be saying that heroism is important — and a total blast — but we have to be cognizant of the traditions our heroes come from. So when Verbinski notices the irony of calling a hero so dependent on his sidekick the “Lone” Ranger, you can rest assured the movie will, too.


In fact, the only character who is truly alone in this movie IS Tonto, which brings me to another hotly criticized element of The Lone Ranger: its frame story. See, the movie is not only about Tonto, it’s a story told by him. The movie opens in 1933** as a young boy discovers a wizened Tonto in a carnival sideshow.

It is the critical reception of this exact part of the movie that makes me think people are simply missing the point. The frame story has been widely regarded as one of a long list of bad decisions; a distraction that eats up the runtime of the movie while adding nothing of any consequence.

And the frame story is, basically, a lot of the point. Tonto relegated to sideshow status is an extension of the movie’s satiric agenda. At various points we see the character in chains, behind bars, and in cages. For him to wind up as a relic intended for study by complete strangers… like I said, there’s a point being made here.


Those bars on his face aren’t just for show.

I guess I can see how some people feel it diverts the narrative flow of the story (though again I disagree), but it’s astonishing to hear talk about it like it’s this movie’s ruptured appendix; an extra bit that only causes trouble and should have just been taken out in the first place.

It’s much more like a third arm. Awkward at times, sure, but it allows the story to reach for things that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I clearly have no idea what I’m doing with these metaphors, so I’ll move on.

It’s tempting to go through the layers of meaning assigned to the characters in this film. The railroad tycoon, the cannibal outlaw, the brothers with different approaches to the problem of injustice… it’s tempting. Ultimately, though, that would be antithetical to the movie’s MO, as Verbinski has delightfully clothed this complex allegory in the garb of a rip-roaring adventure movie.


The Lone Ranger contains not one, but two of the finest train sequences ever committed to the silver screen. These scenes are a freakin’ masterclass in action filmmaking. Verbinski exemplifies Spielberg’s uncanny ability to keep his action clean, specific, and propulsive, along with Lucas’s gift for juggling multiple story threads through his set pieces. I realize I just compared this guy to two of America’s great action filmmakers, and I meant it.

And it’s not about looking cool. This is the kind of action that you’ll wind up talking about by saying things like “It was hilarious when Tonto…” or “It was so cool when Dan…” as opposed to praising the cinematography or editing or whatever. Verbinski’s so good at this that you can forget there’s a person even directing the thing. This is a movie that deserves to be forty feet high.

It also looks extremely cool.


On the acting front, you have Depp doing his thing. I know people have gotten tired of this guy, but overexposure (and racial issues***) aside, his version of Tonto is well-rendered and a lot of fun. Superficially, he resembles the Jack Sparrow character, but their hearts lie in completely different places and they fulfill very different archetypes.

While Depp is as good as usual, Armie Hammer knocks it clear out of the park. Seriously, this kid has the chops to be a real movie star, and it’s a shame this performance is likely going to be buried underneath everything else people are saying about the movie.

For the rest of the actors, I’ll just mention that William Fichtner gives us one of the great nasty villains of recent years, and a number of other old pros**** come in and do their thing, and be done with the technical stuff. Oh, Zimmer does a nice job on the score, too.

The Lone Ranger is everything I like to see in a big budget studio movie. It’s a grand spectacle with a real reason for existing. It shows generous amounts of ambition and directorial voice. It’s well-acted. It’s bizarrely funny. It’s impeccably made… you see what I’m getting at here.

No, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly no failure. Except it kind of is, so if you want to check it out you’d best scurry.



*Where John Reid is trying to think of what he should call his heroic alter ego.

**The same year The Lone Ranger made his radio debut.

***I don’t have much to say here except that without Depp, this movie probably wouldn’t have gotten made. It sucks that it works that way, but given that’s the way it works, I’d rather have the movie than not.

****Most notably Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Barry Pepper. All three manage to bring a lot of specificity and life to characters that could have disappeared in lesser hands.


Similar Posts


  1. Thanks for your dissenting opinion on the film. It seems like we’ve got another case of critical groupthink on our hands, and I honestly don’t understand it. Seems to me that critics went in to the movie afraid to say anything good about it because of the political backlash against Depp’s casting, and spent the entire runtime picking it apart. No wonder they were bored.

    As for its box-office failure, well, we all know a movie’s quality is entirely unrelated to its opening weekend performance. Maybe the Lone Ranger is just too old a character to be a draw. I wouldn’t have been at all interested myself were it not for Depp and Verbinski.

    It’s not a great film by any means, but it’s not the massive turd that critics are making it out to be.

  2. I couldnt agree with you more!
    Having seen trailers, I more or less wrote this off as Pirates of the Caribbean 5 or 6 or whatever number they’re on now. Tonally that may be a dead, but having watch it after being out voted at the theatre, I was really surprised how much I enjoyed it. A fun summer movie with something to say if you want to hear it, or it seems just as content to let you sit back and enjoy.
    Also, sometimes I think people want to see a colossal failure happen. So when fates align and a HUGE budget movie has a marketing campaign that feels like we’ve been there and done that, then critical panning that seems to snowball in on itself; people seem to want to hop on the hate bandwagon and hope for a monumental failure.
    If I’m honest, I was probably on that wagon myself, but I ended up having a great time at the movies… and I think that’s kinda the point.

  3. Haven’t had time (yet) to see it, but I will as I’m actually a fan of the Lone Ranger as a character. I do recall Verbinski saying something early in the production about wanting to make this story b/c he liked the idea of the Lone Ranger actually being a buffoon AND Tonto being the real hero of the story (which Disney execs kinda/sorta scoffed at), and it looks like you may’ve gotten lost in that translation somewheres along the way … or else Verbinski went and did what he wanted maybe. Like I said, I couldn’t say, as I haven’t seen it yet.

    Actually, though, I think the picture could’ve gotten made without Depp, and, yes, it probably could’ve gotten made at a much more affordable price tag (there was a rumor that when Disney and Verbinski sat down to cut costs in order to present a better budget that Depp patently refused a pay cut, but, again, that’s what rumors are for).

  4. @Zimmerman-

    Here’s an actual quote from a CinemaBlend interview:

    “It really starts with this idea of sort of Sancho Panza/Don Quixote thing, then how to make Johnny Depp relevant … you don’t cast him as the sidekick… Then telling the story from his perspective. Then, he’s a character we can do a lot of different things with and then you go, “Ok, if we’re going to do that, then I need the Lone Ranger that’s sort of Jimmy Stewart from Liberty Valance, who’s going to believe in right and wrong and come in on the train and kind of crash into this sort of [Sam] Peckinpah world where justice can be purchased now.'”

  5. @Frank-

    I did notice a lot of critics (not all, but a lot) taking the budget into account as if that has a direct bearing on whether a movie is telling a good story or not. I got the sense that for whatever reason (Depp, Bruckheimer, Disney, the Pirates movies, the budget) a lot of people were predisposed to feed this one to the lions.

    Not a conspiracy theory. More just politics.

  6. A fantastic review, and although I haven’t seen the movie yet I can’t wait to do so now after reading this. I kinda feel like a rebel, snubbing my nose at the ones who seemingly have the power to make or break a great film based on their personal opinions. Goodness, I wish my opinions had such power in my world! I’d rule over and manipulate everything and everyone!! I’m looking forward to watching this movie now that I am so well informed in advance. I’m dying to see the good and the so-called bad, and deciding for myself whether I think it deserves my praise or derision. I wish the rest of the film going community would first decide for themselves before taking the critics’ opinions as fact thereby landing a film firmly in the toilet!! Seems a might unfair, doesn’t it?! I will decide for myself, bad reviews or not. Thanks again for a great write-up, David!

  7. I almost didn’t go because of the reviews, too. If I were the paranoid type, it’s almost seems like a conspiracy among the critics, doesn’t it?

    But then, some critics did post good reviews, so. IDK.

    Anyway, I loved this film for what it was: a fun summer movie. I’ll be buying the DVD.

    And for anyone out there still doubting: yes, it has some jokes that fall flat and some parts flat out dumb. But the exciting moments, the chemistry with Depp and Hammer….the GORGEOUS SCENERY-the good acting-all make up for it IMO.

    Go expecting a fun, summer popcorn flick and forget your worries for a while.

  8. Your review nails it…this is an awesome film in every aspect. I am a forever Depp fan and was thrilled when I heard he was going to play Tonto,my favorite character growing up. As always the sattire and irony is so thick it keeps you enthralled. Not to mention the breathtaking scenery and awesome camera shots. This is another classic in my book!

  9. I left the theatre making these sorts of points as well – I feel like the critics were just geared up before the release to rip into a Depp/Verbinski/Gore film, especially considering that there were auxiliary racial and good-old-American-hero munitions to fuel them in their pursuit.

    I don’t know – even the critics I like seem fickle these days. Every aspect of the entertainment industry is a business, so without crying conspiracy, I’m willing to bet somebody pissed off somebody else who pissed off someone else’s neighbor, and voila! Box office failure it is.

    Then again, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid suffered a beginning very similar to the Lone Ranger’s – then independent reviewers and actual audiences started cocking their heads and shouting back up the mountain to say the big wigs were off their rockers. Maybe word of mouth can still give the Lone Ranger the acclaim it deserves. I’ll do my best!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.