Let’s put aside, for a second, any of our moral ambivalence about Johnny Depp, a white man, playing Tonto. He’s been made an honorary member of the Comanche Tribe, for what it’s worth. And he’s always shown a great respect and admiration for Native American culture. Besides, it’s a moot point: The Lone Ranger wouldn’t have been green lit without him. No Johnny Depp, no movie. (Ah, would it were so.)
So the next question is: How’s his performance? Briefly, in the film’s opening minutes, I thought he was really onto something. In those scenes, he plays Tonto as an old man: Reflective, world-weary, slightly mischievous, perhaps not fully equipped with all of his marbles,. The makeup is astounding; as is Depp’s careful, meditative Apache accent. For those brief scenes, I saw the performance that could’ve been. Instead, Depp and his director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) are up to their usual tricks.
For Verbinski, that means an overstuffed, overlong film with all sorts of show-offy visual tics (slow motion bullets; shattered pocket watches; a red balloon wafting in the sky), plus enormous and disorienting action sequences.
For Depp, that means lots of dead-pan reaction shots and physical comedy. He’s basically playing Jack Sparrow as an Apache. What a shame.
Whatever happened to Depp? Yes, he was always partial to roles that required physical control—both of his body and his expressive, beautiful face. But in those early physical roles—Edward Scissorhands and Benny and Joon, for example—he was clearly inspired by Charlie Chaplin. Lately, he seems content to nurture his inner weirdo, with both Verbinski and Depp’s other partner in whimsy—Tim Burton—egging him on from the sidelines.
As for The Lone Ranger? Well, it’s a hot mess, to be honest. In theory, I liked the casting of Armie Hammer as the masked man—he’s a strapping, hunk of a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. (He even managed to make the Winklevoss twins somewhat relatable—no mean feat). But he’s practically incidental in his own movie. They should’ve just called the thing Tonto and been done with it. Hammer’s Lone Ranger is nothing but a wide-eyed ingénue, and a bit of a buffoon to boot. It’s Tonto who tells him to wear the mask, who encourages him to embrace his destiny and avenge the death of his brother at the hands of a gang of outlaws. And it’s Tonto who saves him from every life-threatening scrape.
When Verbinski deploys Rossini’s rousing “William Tell Overture” (aka The Lone Ranger’s theme song), it seems downright bizarre. Why play such triumphant, heroic music for such a bumbling, inept figure? Like everything else in this film, it just feels off key.