Without question, sitting through director Gore Verbinski's "The Lone Ranger" was the most frustrating filmgoing experience I've had all year.
Epic in scope, gorgeous to look at, mythic in its approach to its seminal title character, at its best the film successfully hearkens back to some of the great Westerns and at times pays homage to the films of John Ford and Sergio Leone by reverently tipping its hat to many of the tropes of the genre that those two introduced and wrote large upon the screen.
But it's also a film that ends up being far too silly to be taken seriously, a movie that combines grisly violence with outlandish slapstick comedy to disturbing effect and opts for empty spectacle in its final act when a good, rousing, old-fashioned chase and shoot-out on the main street of a deserted western town would have been just fine.
As he demonstrates here and in "Rango," still his best film, Verbinski knows the Western inside out, and those of us who are fans of what has become a forgotten genre appreciate his eye for detail and the many allusions to the form he's sprinkled throughout the two films.
Unfortunately, he's also obviously a fan of the work of Chuck Jones, who fashioned classic cartoons featuring a clever roadrunner and a hapless coyote. The outlandish violence in those films was inspired and was suitable to that format, which Verbinski tries to combine with the sweeping scope of this Western. In the end, he proves that the twain do not meet, the result being a schizophrenic affair in which the grandiose is undercut by the ridiculous.
The opening of the film serves as a microcosm of all that's right and wrong with the project. The setting is a carnival in 1933 San Francisco. A young boy, replete in cowboy regalia and a black mask, wanders into a sideshow that promises to recount the history of the Wild West. Upon coming upon an exhibit showcasing the noble savage, the model of the Native American in it reveals itself to be flesh and blood and is in fact Tonto (Johnny Depp), now old and obsolete, who regales the young man with the tale of the Lone Ranger.
Recounting the story in this fashion seems like a good idea, as the clash between the myth the boy knows and the reality Tonto provides could have resulted in an interesting dichotomy and could even speak of the film medium's own culpability in exaggerating this short piece of our history.
However, the conceit is abandoned before it can be explored as Verbinski has trains and settlements waiting to be blown up — and he's not about to waste any time getting to it.
When we first see him, John Reid (Armie Hammer) is an eager young lawyer from the East, coming to Colby, Texas, to be reunited with his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and his wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), for whom he pines.
Deputized by his brother to be a fellow ranger when the posse being formed to track down the nefarious Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) is shorthanded, the greenhorn finds himself the sole survivor of a vicious ambush by the villain and would have perished if he were not found by Tonto and brought back to the land of the living.
The film is a wonder to behold, as Verbinski spared no expense ($250 million) in bringing his vision to life. The towns are dingy and ragged, the characters are dirty, their clothes tattered and conditions are cruel, all of this set against the most iconic backdrop in the genre, Monument Valley.
Equally impressive are the trains used throughout, all of them employed in elaborate set pieces that are at once spectacular (the opening sequence that finds Reid and Tonto trying to stop a runaway locomotive) and ultimately ridiculous (the finale that finds the Ranger and his horse Silver running across the top of a train).
Equally troubling are the characterizations of the two leads. The title character is a bit of a conundrum as Hammer never inhabits the role of the hero. Buffoonish at first, he never fully shakes the notion that Reid is an Easterner who simply doesn't belong in this wild environment and is less than convincing in putting forth the notion that he's changed and embraced a violent brand of justice.
More troubling is Depp's take on Tonto, who is nothing more than comic relief throughout. Mugging for the camera, employing broad comedic gestures and providing a caricature of a Native American rather than a fully invested portrayal, the actor's performance is out of place here, more at home in a remake of Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" rather than a tribute to a classic American art form.
Verbinski shoots himself in the foot as "The Lone Ranger" follows the same pattern as his bloated "Pirates of the Caribbean" adventures. What starts off as a meticulously rendered and serious recreation of a beloved genre ultimately comes undone when the director embraces an aesthetic of the ridiculous.
What we are left with is a film that strains to be majestic and comic at the same time, yet fails to achieve either fully.
'The Lone Ranger' (2-1/2 stars out of 4)
Cast: Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper, Bryant Prince and Mason Cook.
Directed by Gore Verbinski; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Verbinski; written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.
A Disney Pictures release. 149 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material). At the AMC Village Mall 6, Harvest Moon Drive-in and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Likable characters, inventive visuals buoy "Despicable 2" (3 stars). Perhaps the most surprising thing about Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud's "Despicable Me 2" is that it seems far less ambitious than its predecessor. Sporting little in the way of character development and a fairly standard plot, it flirts with being a throwaway exercise throughout.
With a running time of 98 minutes, my 8-year-old assistant, Grant, seemed to think the film was too short. Though he couldn't put it into words, he sensed how slight of an affair this is.
But that did not prevent either of us from having a good time as the unique world and characters rendered in the film still proved engaging and funny enough to leave us satisfied.
Would-be moon thief Gru (voice by Steve Carell) has given up being a super villain and has taken to being an adoptive father like a duck to water. He dotes on his three young charges — Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) — and is developing his own line of gourmet jellies and jams.
But when he's approached by the Anti Villain League to help track down the culprit who has stolen an experimental serum that turns innocent creatures into bloodthirsty killers, he reluctantly enters the world of secret espionage (I mean, who's he kidding? Once you've stolen the moon, there's no way making fruit preserves could ever be enough.)
With the knowledge that his prey has set up shop at a local mall, Gru sets up a cupcake shop and is given a partner in the person of Agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig) to help him. Their surveillance methods take up a good chunk of the film as they stumble through watching one prospective bad guy after another. Ultimately they focus on Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt), the owner of a Mexican restaurant whose manner triggers something in Gru's memory that he can't shake.
The story is nothing special, but what makes the film worthwhile are the appealing characters, the unique situations Coffin and Renuad dream up for them and their distinctive visual style.
Gru is quite appealing, and Carell's efforts play a large part in this. His over-the-top delivery in a faux Eastern European accent casts the character in a buffoonish light yet we know he has a heart of gold that makes us sympathize with him when his plans go awry. The veteran is ably supported by inspired work by Wiig and especially Bratt, who brings an outsized flair to Eduardo that is hilarious.
Many of the film's set pieces are inspired. Of note is a scene that finds a villain riding a rocket while strapped to a shark, which is headed to an active volcano (you have to see it to believe it), a rousing climax that simultaneously lampoons action films while delivering thrills of its own — and an odd turn of affairs for a great number of minions that yields a great many laughs.
These moments, as well as the numerous visual gags found in the meticulously rendered backgrounds, speak to the directors' rich vision, which helps save "Despicable 2" from being just another standard animated film.
"Heat" can't warm these leftovers (2 stars). If I were to substitute salt for sugar while making a cake I would have a dessert that would look about the same but would be a bit of a disaster.
In making "The Heat," director Paul Feig and writer Katie Dippold take the same approach to the buddy/cop movie by focusing on female law enforcement officers instead of male. As a result, the unoriginal idea cannot radically transform this genre exercise as this action/comedy delivers the same ol', same ol' with overblown action sequences, cracking wise and enemies turning into frenemies.
Sandra Bullock stars, kind of, as FBI agent Sarah Ashburn, an ambitious woman who's sacrificed any sense of normalcy to get ahead in the department. Just how bad is her social life? Basically, she's a cat lady without a cat, having to borrow her neighbor's pet whenever she's feeling blue. She's shipped out to Boston to track down an elusive (is there any other kind?) drug lord, a mission she's intent on completing as she's looking to replace her immediate superior (a wasted Demian Bichir) who's moving on.
But this task will be far from easy, as she will have to work with Officer Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), an abrasive, condescending and in all ways reprehensible person who I'm surprised hasn't been the victim of a friendly fire incident within the department.
The two meet, they don't get along, they bicker, they come to a mutual understanding, they ultimately respect one another, they catch the bad guy and they become bosom buddies. I would have issued a spoiler alert at the beginning of this paragraph, but really you know where this film is headed from Frame 1.
There's nothing wrong with covering the same ground if it can be done with a bit of imagination and energy. But it seemed as though the filmmakers thought all they had to do was throw two appealing actresses in traditional male roles and that was all the innovation needed to ensure the success of the film.
While Bullock and McCarthy are capable performers, they're laboring with a bag of cliches tied round their necks in a movie that has serious tone and mood issues. It is, at times, brutal, which jars with the pair's "witty" hijinks.
I'd be lying if I didn't say I laughed out loud twice. However, there's an issue of balance that hurts the film in the long run. Bullock earns some sort of award for being magnanimous as more times than not, she steps aside and lets McCarthy dominate the screen. This winds up being a wise strategy as there's no way she can match her co-star's outsized personality. Playing the straight woman pays off.
As for McCarthy, a little of her goes a long, long way. Her in-your-face approach works initially because it's shocking as well as intriguing; you just don't know how far she'll push things. Then, when you realize that she has no boundaries and opts for the most outlandish approach every time, her shtick becomes predictable and a bit of a bore.
The joke seems to be on me, though, as a sequel to this surprise hit has already been pushed into production, meaning I get to spend even more time with this charming and overly familiar duo far sooner than I'd like.