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Straddling the demands of a modern blockbuster and the charms of classic Westerns, Disney's reboot of "The Lone Ranger" isn't as polished as a silver bullet. But it's got plenty of action, a healthy respect for the genre, and a true-blue performance by Armie Hammer in the title role.
"The Lone Ranger" reunites the team that took "Pirates of the Caribbean" from theme park to multiplex: Disney, star Johnny Depp, action producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski. Their main alteration to the Lone Ranger legend, begun on the radio in the 1930s and enshrined by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in the '50s TV series, is to give Tonto (played by Depp) equal stature with Hammer's masked man.
The script – credited to Justin Haythe ("Snitch") and the "Pirates" team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio – introduces the Lone Ranger as John Reid, a freshly minted lawyer returning to his Texas hometown to dispense modern justice through law books, not guns.
John rides with a group of Texas Rangers, led by his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to apprehend the outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). But Cavendish and his gang ambush the Rangers (in a scene that uses Utah's iconic Monument Valley as a backdrop), killing everyone except John. Tonto discovers John, fashions a mask from his bullet-ventilated vest, and explains that he, too, seeks revenge on Cavendish for his own reasons.
While on Cavendish's trail, Reid and Tonto also learn of the nefarious dealings of Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a railroad baron whose expansion plans are riling up tension with the nearby Cherokee tribes. Cole also is circling Dan's widow Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), who has long-simmering feelings for John.
There's an "everything and the kitchen sink" overkill in the story, which piles on Chinese rail workers, the U.S. Army and a madam (Helena Bonham Carter) with a scrimshaw-adorned wooden leg with a hidden shotgun barrel. Verbinski manages to keep it all reined in, barely, with colorful set pieces, a loving eye toward Western landscapes (some of them shot in Utah), and an exciting railroad chase at the finish.
Depp's Tonto is an oddball, with ghost makeup and a stuffed crow on his forehead that Tonto keeps trying to feed corn kernels. But Depp tones down his instinctual clownishness, striking a balance between Capt. Jack Sparrow's loopiness and the grave tones of his various Hunter S. Thompson incarnations (e.g., "The Rum Diary," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "Rango").
Hammer (who played Prince Charming in "Mirror, Mirror" and the Vinklevoss twins in "The Social Network") looks like an old-school matinee idol, and underplays that blue-eyed charm with self-deprecating humor, particularly in the early going when he depicts Reid as something of a naive fool.
"The Lone Ranger" ultimately works because, in an age of mechanized action blockbusters, it's not afraid to be a Western. It deftly conveys "those thrilling days of yesteryear" (as the narrator on the old TV and radio shows used to say) of fleet-footed horses and chugging locomotives, even as it acknowledges that the good guys and bad guys aren't always easy to spot unless, like our masked hero, he's wearing a white hat.
'The Lone Ranger'
Armie Hammer's masked man and Johnny Depp's Tonto ride as equals in this thrilling reboot of the classic Western story.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Wednesday, July 3.
Rating • PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material.
Running time • 149 minutes.