Yes, there’s a cloud of dust. Yes, there’s a hearty “Hi-yo, Silver!” And yes, there’s a marvelous chase scene to the tune of the beautifully rendered "William Tell Overture."
But it takes a long, long time before Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” actually transitions into the iconic masked lawman. At the finale of this bloated, 2½-hour exercise, with its first hour a hybrid of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Little Big Man,” there is a terrific adventure.
The story, told largely in elongated flashbacks, begins in 1933 (not-so-coincidentally the year “The Lone Ranger” made its debut as a radio show). A little boy visits a Wild West exhibition where he sees an aged Native American apparently on display in a diorama.
The “display,” of course, is really Tonto (Johnny Depp), who springs to life when he sees the boy is attired in much the same way as his former “ke-mo sah-bee.” (That term, incidentally, was taken from Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee, a boys’ camp established by the father-in-law of Jim Jewell, the longtime director of the story's radio version.)
The flashback begins in 1869, with Armie Hammer (“The Social Network" and “J. Edgar") as John Reid, an idealistic district attorney whose brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a tough Texas Ranger. John comes back to his Texas home after earning his law degree.
Dan deputizes John so he can help track the vicious criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). But after an act of betrayal, John is the only one able to carry on, with the help of Tonto and a mysterious white “spirit horse.” Tom Wilkinson stars as a powerful railroad tycoon who has an interest in Cavendish as well.
The tone is uneven. Sometimes it’s a full-bore comedy, particularly when the focus is Tonto's goofiness. At other times, the script becomes serious and dark.
The origin of the Lone Ranger is cluttered with extraneous characters and just plain weird contrivances (Cannibalistic rabbits? A scorpion-consuming horse?) that not only increase the overly long running time, but also add to the mixed bag of what the movie really wants to be.
Since the late Clayton Moore donned the mask for the TV series, it’s been tough, if not impossible, for anyone else to hit the right note of bravado in the character. The show does exactly that in the last half hour, with the thundering music accompanying the action.
You have to sit through a lot to get to the good stuff. But there’s a sequel in the making. Maybe Verbinski will find the right tone when he returns to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
(I dedicate this review to the late Mr. Moore, who gave me one of the most unforgettable moments of my life when I met him and heard him bellow, “Hi-yo, Silver!”)