"The Lone Ranger" is way too long, incoherent at times, loaded with clumsy dialogue and less than sure-footed in its tone.
That's the bad news.
But here's the thing about the film: despite all its not-inconsiderable failings, it's surprisingly entertaining for its two and a half-hour running time. Every time it threatens to go completely off the rails, there's a spectacular action sequence or, more often, a dazzling bit of business from Johnny Depp as Tonto that pulls you back into the film. With all its tonal shifts and florid execution, it's more than a bit like the first "Pirates of the Caribbean," which also starred Depp and was also directed by Gore Verbinski.
"The Lone Ranger" is the latest retelling of the legend of a masked man who brought justice to the Old West in "those thrilling days of yesteryear." Originally a 1930s radio series, the story earned a place in American mythology as a hit television show that ran from 1949 to 1957 with Clayton Moore as the ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. People who grew up in that era can still recall the show's theme music (the "William Tell Overture") and such catchphrases as "Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!"
While much of the "Lone Ranger" back story is present in fragments, Verbinski and writers Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (all "Pirates" veterans) chose to open the film in 1933 San Francisco with an ancient Tonto as part of a low-rent Wild West carnival exhibit. He gets into a conversation with a kid in a cowboy outfit about his adventures with Kemosabe with recollections that prove as inconsistent as the movie itself.
In his version of the tale, Tonto is a crafty warrior/shaman while John Reid (Armie Hammer of "The Social Network"), aka the Lone Ranger, is a citified lawyer returning to his hometown of Colby, Texas, to be the new local prosecutor. His older brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is the Texas Ranger captain assigned to pick up a real bad outlaw named Butch Cavendish (the always-quirky William Fichtner), who is being brought to Colby by train to meet his maker for his crimes. Also on the train: the homecoming John Reid and Tonto, who is under arrest for "being an Indian."
This is all happening against the backdrop of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, overseen by railway boss Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who has his eye on Dan's wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) with all kinds of nefarious plans.
As you might expect, the train never reaches Colby. Instead, Cavendish's gang springs him, triggering the first of several elaborate train wrecks that dot the movie. That triggers a chase with John Reid joining his brother and the rangers in a hunt for Cavendish and his men. There is a bloody ambush with all but John Reid ending up dead. Dan Reid's death is particularly ugly.
But the lawyer is rescued not by Tonto, but by Silver who, in this version, is a spirit horse with some amusing eccentricities. Tonto becomes convinced Reid is a "spirit warrior" who cannot be killed. Thus, the Lone Ranger legend is born and -- after another 90 minutes and numerous battles and chase scenes -- justice will prevail.
Verbinski clearly had in mind a film that would shift easily between humor and action. Instead, he's created a pastiche that careens erratically through references to the original TV show, John Ford's classic tales of the West (the scenery is gorgeous), Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns and the revisionist works of Sam Peckinpah. Heck, there are even borrowed bits from "Back to the Future 3" (which was partly set in the Old West) and "The Last Samurai."
They may not be original, but Verbinski sure knows how to stage an individual scene -- even while he proves incapable of stringing them together in a coherent fashion. Using CGI, some mechanical horses and good, old-fashioned stunt work, the set pieces are often real grabbers.
And then there's Depp, who manages to be witty and surprising as Tonto, even if other aspects of the movie are falling apart around him. The other performances are at best serviceable with Hammer, Fichtner and Wilson (a BBC-TV actress who deserves a better role next time) faring the best. (Despite her prominence in the film's trailer and posters, Helena Bonham Carter's role as a saloon madam is no more than a glorified cameo.)
In the end, "The Lone Ranger" is one hot mess -- an entertaining one, to be sure, but still a mess.
For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
'THE LONE RANGER'
* * 1/2
Rating: PG-13 (for intense action, violence and some suggestive material).
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fitchner and Tom Wilkinson
Director: Gore Verbinski
Running time: 2 hours,