There's a limit, it turns out, to how much Johnny Depp and a bucket of makeup can accomplish.
In "The Lone Ranger," Gore Verbinski's flamboyant re-imagination of the hokey long-running radio show and '50s cowboy TV series, Depp eagerly attempts to recreate the extravagant magic of his similarly farcical Jack Sparrow of Verbinski's "Pirates of the Caribbean."
With cracked white and black streaks down his face and a dead crow atop his head, Depp's Tonto (whose look makeup artist Joel Harlow took from the Kirby Sattler painting "I Am Crow") appears more witch doctor than warrior. One would think that a so-costumed Depp careening through the Old West with Buster Keaton aplomb would make "The Lone Ranger," at worst, entertaining.
But Verbinski's film, stretching hard to both reinvent an out-of-date brand and breathe new life in the Western with a desperate onslaught of bloated set pieces, is a poor locomotive for Depp's eccentric theatrics. For 2 ½ hours, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced "Lone Ranger" inflates, subverts and distorts the conventions of the Western until, in an interminable climax, the big-budget spectacle finally, exhaustingly collapses in a scrap heap of train wreckage.
"The Long Ranger" is, alas, a runaway train. A filmmaker of great excess, Verbinski's ricocheting whimsy here runs off the rails. Flashback-heavy plot mechanics, occasionally grim violence (bullets land in bodies with the loudest of thwacks, a heart gets eaten) and surrealistic comedy add up to a confused tone that seems uncertain exactly how to position Depp's Tonto in the movie, to say nothing of Armie Hammer's wayward Lone Ranger.
The film begins with an elderly, leathery Tonto (also Depp, nearly unrecognizable) at a 1933 San Francisco fair where, under a sign labeled "noble savage," the old Native American regales a young, masked Lone Ranger fan (Mason Cook) about his adventures with John Reid (Hammer).
Previously the sidekick, Tonto plays the starring role in the story, narrating a tall tale of his coming together with Reid, a district attorney who arrives in the frontier town of Colby, Texas, with high ideals of justice and a copy of John Locke's "Treatise on Government" under his arm.
The lawman is made a Texas Ranger when the criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner, ashen and sinister) escapes. The pursuit takes on urgency when Cavendish massacres the rest of the Rangers (including Reid's brother, played by James Badge Dale), leaving Reid and Tonto to navigate a familiar mid-19th century Old West — the coming railroad, mining development and Indian warfare — with familiar types like the intrepid tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) and a one-legged madam (Helena Bonham Carter).
Stepping into Clayton Moore's boots, the tall, baritone Hammer never looks at ease. While he exudes the Lone Ranger's earnest wholesomeness, he's understandably an uncertain straight man alongside Depp's slapstick. Having to wear a white Stetson and mask in his first starring role feels like yet another humiliation for the Winklevoss twins Hammer memorably played in "The Social Network."
The most laudable aspect of "The Lone Ranger" is that it attempts to dispel and mock Hollywood's past Native American ills. Depp, who has claimed he has some Cherokee ancestry, delights in upending false images of Indian mysticism, all the while tossing bird seed to the dead crow on his head.
But "The Lone Ranger," which was made with much of the "Pirates" team including screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, along with "Revolutionary Road" adapter Justin Haythe, can only be filed alongside "Cowboys and Aliens" and "Wild, Wild West" as ornate films that are so nervous about the modern appeal of the Western that they ruin it by impulsively overstuffing it. The Coen brothers' "True Grit" and the 2007 remake of "3:10 to Yuma" better understood the genre's inherent terseness.
When Verbinski was last directing and Depp was a cartoon lizard, they crafted a far better Western in "Rango."
"The Lone Ranger," a Walt Disney release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material. Running time: 149 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.