Director Gore Verbinski teams up yet again with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and star Johnny Depp for a reimagining of the iconic Western hero the Lone Ranger that comes loaded with Depp playing a heavily made-up eccentric, a series of Rube Goldberg-esque action sequences, and a cast stocked with talented Brits. Basically, it's everything the Pirates of the Caribbean movies taught these guys that the market demands.
The plot, though overly complicated in the telling, is actually quite simple. Educated lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) returns to his hometown of Colby, TX, on a train that's carrying the fearsomely violent bad guy Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who is being hauled in by the local civic bigwig Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) so that the killer can be publicly hanged in order to assure the townsfolk of their safety.
Also on the train bringing Butch and John to Colby is Tonto (Johnny Depp), a mystical, deadpan Comanche whom we eventually learn has been shunned by his tribe and has revenge on his mind due to events from his past. After Cavendish pulls off an elaborate escape with the help of his gang, a posse led by John's older brother Dan (James Badge Dale) hunt down the bandits until they are ambushed and massacred by the Cavendish crew. Surprisingly, John survives the attack and is rescued by Tonto, who informs the gun-shy Texan that he is now a spirit warrior who can't be killed in battle. John dons a black mask, and he and Tonto work together to seek vengeance.
For about the first hour of the film's 150-minute running time, Verbinski's take on The Lone Ranger has an admirable proficiency -- he's a director who can set up cartoonish action sequences that are enjoyable, but they extend for so long that eventually you realize you don't really care what happens to the characters. At that point -- and it's a point that arrives eventually in almost all of his movies -- Verbinski shows that he's basically a soulless Steven Spielberg; he's a mechanically gifted filmmaker capable of ingenious visual gags and propulsive editing, but doesn't have much interest in his characters. It's as if, once he's explained their motivations, he doesn't want to spare them another thought.
What makes him able to helm such successful blockbusters is that at some level he knows this. He approaches genre films -- whether pirate adventures, Japanese horror (The Ring), or screwball comedies (The Mexican) -- with the intention of showing you something you've never seen before, rather than a desire to tell stories about three-dimensional people. To compensate, he hires first-rate actors and lets them bring the characters to life.
That approach works intermittently, but here the story is so ponderously plotted -- it takes forever to get everybody's backstory, and a pointless framing device set 60 years after the main action weighs down an already bloated screenplay -- that apathy bleeds much of the fun to be had out of the spectacular set pieces.
There are enjoyable bits of business along the way. Depp has concocted another thoroughly original comedic creation in Tonto, who's a cross between his character from the Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man and Buster Keaton. If Verbinski, and not just Depp, had stolen a little more from both of those sources, The Lone Ranger might feel like something more than another Disney megafranchise.