Saturday, 23 November 2013

"There come a time, when good man must wear mask."

The Lone Ranger rides again, and it is with no small relief and a wide grin that we can embrace the reboot of one of the longest running, most iconic and complicated franchises in entertainment history.

Created by Fran Striker, The Lone Ranger made his debut on American radio in 1933 and ran until 1954. Spanning over 3,000 episodes, it was only a matter of time before the enormously successful radio show spun off into other media.

Striker himself published 16 Lone Ranger novels between 1936 and 1956. Two non canon film serials were produced in 1936 and 1939. A Lone Ranger daily newspaper strip ran from 1938 until 1971. Dell comics ran 145 issues from 1948 to 1962, including spin-off series' for both Tonto and Silver, before Gold Key took over publishing duties in 1964.

But perhaps the most popular and successful interpretation of the character, however, was the television series starring Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto (with John Hart replacing Moore for the third season). The Lone Ranger TV show ran from 1949 until 1957 and reruns featured heavily on US networks right up to the 1980s. The series produced 221 original episodes and Moore and Silverheels starred in two big screen Lone Ranger outings: The Lone Ranger (1956), and The Lone Ranger And The Lost City Of Gold (1958). There were also two Lone Ranger animated series, one in 1966 and one in 1980 which ran as part of the Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.

After the poorly received The Legend Of The Lone Ranger (1981) starring Klinton Spillsbury, the character faded away from the mainstream. The film had suffered set backs before it was ever released. Clayton Moore had been making personal appearances in the Lone Ranger costume since the TV show debuted. Understandably the films producers were uncomfortable with two Lone Rangers running around, so they took legal action to prevent Moore from appearing with the Ranger mask on. 

Over a decade later, Topps Comics tried to revive the character with a 4 issue mini-series in 1994, but had limited success. And in 2003 Warner Bros produced a two hour Lone Ranger TV special that was intended as a series pilot. However, the producers had changed the story so much the character was barely recognisable and new series was never produced.

Respite finally came in 2006 when Dynamite Entertainment released a short comic book series that saw the Lone Ranger find a new audience and a popularity he hadn't experienced since the Clayton Moore series.

Then owned by Classic Media, the future seemed bright for our masked hero, and in January 2007 The Weinstein Company and its home entertainment division, Genius Products, partnered with UK based Entertainment Rights in a deal that would see The Lone Ranger reach a new home entertainment audience through TV and video games. Instead, Boomerang Media bought out Entertainment Rights, including Classic Media, which was later acquired by DreamWorks Animation and renamed as DreamWorks Classics.

While ownership of the Lone Ranger property was shifting ambiguously, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Entertainment Rights had set the film up at Walt Disney Pictures as Lone Ranger, under the leadership of then studio chairman Dick Cook. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who had worked with Bruckheimer and Disney on the Pirates Of The Caribbean film series, were drafted in to write the script in 2008 around the time that Disney announced that Johnny Depp would be portraying Tonto.

Initial drafts of the script were considered too supernatural – including a plot involving shape shifting werewolves – and was subsequently rewritten by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road). Mike Newell, who was then directing Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (2010) for Bruckheimer and Disney, was initially in negotiations to direct Lone Ranger in 2009. Bruckheimer, however, wanted to hold off until Newell had completed Prince Of Persia, and Depp had finished filming Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). A year later, Bruckheimer stalwart Gore Verbinski was finally hired to direct. 

Even then the signs were not auspicious. Admittedly the photos of Johnny Depp in buckskin and a dead crow on his head – Depp's make-up and costume inspired by the painting I Am Crow by Kirby Sattler, who is not American Indian and paints imaginary characters – looked intriguing. But the years in development, multiple credited screenwriters, different mooted directors, vague reports of production problems, a budget that ballooned to the $250 million mark and a slew of comparisons to the Wild Wild West (1999) from the US reviews all suggested a disappointing fiasco could be on the cards. Not a bit. Blockbuster über producer Bruckheimer and director Verbinski, with a considerable effort from a great cast, stunt co-ordinators, animal wranglers, immortal music and scenery enshrined as John Ford country, resoundingly deliver the goods and the potential for an ongoing saga to rival The Pirates Of The Caribbean. 

The scene is set when a small boy in a Lone Ranger costume visits a Wild West exhibit in San Francisco in 1933. The year being just one of the many homages and references, since 1933 was the year The Lone Ranger debuted on American radio.

The boy (Mason Elston Cook) stands transfixed by a display featuring a wax figure of a weird and wizened American Indian. Of course he's not a wax figure at all, but an ancient, addlepated Tonto, who mistakes the boy for his Kemosabe and takes off at a gallop with flashbacks down Memory Lane. The device of an old man telling a tale to a young boy was the genius stroke in William Goldman's, The Princess Bride, and it works as brilliantly here. The youngster's intermittent objections, indignation and incredulity over aspects of Tonto's story taking us back and forth in time periods and effectively linking episodic adventures into one big story in five acts. It also preempts protests in the stalls from Lone Ranger buffs concerned by deviations from the long established lore. If one can sit tight and exercise patience through troubling episodes and seeming transgressions – like the ever morally upright hero holding up a bank at gun point – all is gradually revealed and explained in a highly satisfactory, reasoned and reverent fashion.

This is an origin story. John Reid (Armie Hammer) arrives in Colby, Texas, in 1869 with a law degree, a prosecutorial job and a belief in law, order and justice that remains unshakable to the point of foolish do-gooding innocence. His elder brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), is a Texas Ranger, and married to John's once sweetheart, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson). When Dan and his posse ride out in pursuit of the infamous Butch Cavendish, John the inexperienced city slicker is embarrassed into coming along. Ambush and slaughter ensue. John soon finds himself regaining consciousness in a grave dug by the eccentric Tonto (Depp), before recovering and donning a mask made from his brother's vest, with the startlingly savvy Tonto advising him that he needs to stay dead in their circumstances. A partnership is born, with odd couple bickering the tone and parallel agendas the plot, with the rest of The Lone Ranger's essential accoutrements – flashing white wild stallion, silver bullets and catchphrase – collected in due course.

Meanwhile, vicious baddies (William Fichtner, almost unrecognisable as the grubby badass Butch, accompanied by an assortment of grotesque goons including the bizarrely underused likes of James Frain) are raiding ranches, banks and stirring up war between the Comanches, settlers and railroad interests (embodied by Tom Wilkinson's devious big shot presiding in the fancy, elegantly appointed railroad car). We should point out that history and geography have gone out of the window from the off, and other niggles include various musical anachronisms – like a band playing a Sousa march that wasn't composed for another 20 years. The Transcontinental Railroad that linked East and West, and the thousands of Chinese workers who laboured to build it, went nowhere near Texas. And locations in cinematically sacrosanct Monument Valley, Utah and California look nothing like Texan terrain. But they do make for mighty pretty pictures; a shot of The Lone Ranger and Tonto astride their mounts at the edge of John Ford's Point in Monument Valley is one of the breathtaking images that make you take this film seriously and to heart amid crazed action, breakneck escapades and belly laughs. It isn't just golden oldies that rate referencing. Helena Bonham Carter's Red, roistering madam of the improbably Fellini-esque local pleasure palace, has a finely crafted artificial limb of ivory scrimshaw that conceals a secret straight out of Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse (2007).

Depp and Hammer pitch their performances as Tonto (marking the first time the sidekick gets top billing) and Lone Ranger beautifully, funny but not too ridiculous, engaging and at times even moving. Tonto's broken English and wackier rants are his mask. There is intelligence, wisdom, cunning and long-term planning in his seeming madness. Even his inauthentic, highly individual accessories are eventually explained as possessions and emblems with great significance in some major back story reveals. Small moments, pointed shots and apparent throwaway lines are neatly planted throughout that make sense of several mysteries and oddities by the end. The impossibly square-jawed Hammer also has the chops to pull off a naive, well intentioned pratfaller, a classic hero and a sorrowing survivor with dramatically emotional gear changes. Although this is dangerously pitched as an action adventure, comedy Western, the abundant humour happily stays the right side of feel good, knowing jests never straying into panto, parody or piss take.

Silver too is a particular stand out. A comedic horse with a taste for hooch recalling Lee Marvin's drunken nag in Cat Ballou (1965) and an aptitude for heights that defies explanation, but when thundering hooves and riding like the wind are called for he certainly shows his true colour. One scene in particular both demonstrates this point and also explains where the money went. The Lone Ranger appears, heroically posed on Silver, on a rooftop, as Rossini's William Tell Overture takes over from Hans Zimmer's superb score for a gobsmacking set piece of runaway trains on twin tracks, Tonto aboard one, bad guys on the other, hostages and loot changing hands, heroine dangling over precipices, while the masked man and his steed fly over rooftops, railway carriages and chasms, the careening locomotives' paths perilously aligning, bending, diverging and colliding in a sensational climactic spectacle. Verbinski and co have literally timed and orchestrated the culminating thrill ride action to the music, and it's remarkably magical.

Talk about a pleasant surprise then! Real storytelling, beautifully – at times insanely – executed, with enough excitement, laughs and fun to make you feel seven years old again.

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