Long before he became known as a right-wing fanatic, radio talk-show host and columnist Michael Medved co-wrote (with his brother Harry) The Golden Turkey Awards, an amusing look at the worst films in Hollywood history. In their absurd selection of Richard Burton as The Worst Actor of All Time (yeah, I know, but bear with me), they focused on his admittedly dismal later years and offered choice quotes by critics Roger Ebert and Jay Cocks. Ebert stated, "There is no longer any novelty in watching the sad disintegration of Richard Burton's acting career," while Cocks wrote, "Richard Burton, once an actor, now performs mainly as a buffoon."
It's highly unlikely that Johnny Depp will ever suffer such a blanket condemnation at any stage in his career - not while his movies continue to regularly achieve blockbuster status at the international box office (only 16 movies have globally cleared one billion dollars; he's the only performer to star in three of them). Yet ever since he first became both an audience draw and an Oscar nominee 10 years ago with his wonderfully deranged turn in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, he's largely been content either playing Pirates' Jack Sparrow (four films to date, with another on its way) or playing shallow Sparrow knockoffs. Depp used to be an interesting actor, but now he's content troweling on the makeup and making silly faces. In short, he's become a buffoon.
The Lone Ranger is the latest case in point, and were that the movie's only sin. But it has greater problems than simply Depp's mugging - in short, this is the Wild Wild West of 2013. Like that 1999 dud starring Will Smith, it's a July 4th opener that's bloated, frenzied, idiotic and exhausting. It's the sort of heavily hyped, big-budget extravaganza that promises to deliver a fun cinematic experience but instead leaves the audience feeling as if it's been collectively beaten with a baseball bat.
Since the title character doesn't wear any makeup and therefore holds no interest for the actor, Depp is instead cast as Tonto, the Native American who convinces idealistic lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) that he could better fight crime by donning a mask that would lend him an air of mystery. Theirs is a relationship marked with conflict from the start, as Reid considers Tonto a lunatic and Tonto dismisses Reid as a clumsy fool. But they're united in their quest to bring down Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an outlaw who's not above carving out and eating the heart of a man he's just killed. There's another major villain whose identity is kept hidden from audience members, but only a viewer who hasn't seen a movie since, say, John Wayne's 1930 oater The Big Trail would fail to spot the obvious.
The Lone Ranger clocks in at a punishing 150 minutes, and it's the sort of film where a chainsaw would have been immensely useful in the editing room. For starters, the movie could lose the insufferable framing device that features Depp getting to wear even more makeup, as he plays Tonto as an elderly man relating the bulk of the movie as a flashback. The railroad subplot, Reid's feelings toward his sister-in-law (Ruth Wilson), the antics of Reid's horse Silver, the overstuffed climax - there isn't a single section of this movie that couldn't be trimmed for the greater good. That includes the violence, which is pretty brutal for a PG-13 effort - parents planning to load the kids into the SUV and haul them to the multiplex for a family outing might want to reconsider.
Director Gore Verbinski, whose last Western with Depp was the delightful, Oscar-winning animated feature Rango, and his trio of writers are obviously schooled in film lore, and the movie contains homages to such Western classics as Once Upon a Time in the West, Little Big Man and the John Ford canon. But these bits are like the seeds that end up on the bottom of bird cages, momentarily visible before getting covered in crap. An earlier movie version - 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger - was a massive critical and commercial disaster, but this franchise has enjoyed success in practically every other medium, including radio (where it began), television and comic books. Because of Depp's participation - and the movie's status as an "event" picture - this new film will probably turn a nice profit and become a tent-pole for its studio.
Let's just hope any sequels are better than this effort: While the radio program ran for nearly 3,000 shows and the TV series encompassed over 200 episodes, I'm presently wary of seeing this move past one.