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On Movies: Spark of 'Stardom' is missing in 'The Lone Ranger'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: "The Lone Ranger" After about two very long hours of disjointed and befuddling action, much of it conducted in the dark, the screen seems to brighten, the lenses open up, the camera grows wings and the soundtrack comes to life with a blast of familiar music. A tall man in a slim black mask, his hat the color of pearls, leaps into the saddle of a beautiful white stallion and takes off in pursuit of the forces of evil. With a flurry, trumpets charge into the familiar notes of "The William Tell Overture."

This is the first time in the new movie "The Lone Ranger" we've heard that theme music, designed to swell the heart; and it accompanies a terrific chase scene, swift and intricate. Two railroad trains speed on twin tracks through the mountains, with the Lone Ranger (Arnie Hammer) tall in the saddle as his horse Silver gallops on top of the speeding cars, leaping from train to train. Tonto (Johnny Depp) pops up at just the right moments, a bedraggled blackbird on his head, to strike a strategic blow against white men trying to steal from Indians.

The last half hour of "The Lone Ranger" is far and away the best part of the movie, but the whole thing is two and a half hours long, and most of the rest of it is a mess. For most of the movie, the hero isn't even called the Lone Ranger -- he's just some prissy lawyer named John Reid. Reid's lawman brother was murdered by a scurrilous gang of sadistic outlaws, and Reid himself barely escaped with his life. Reid swears he will get the men who killed his brother, but he is going to do it in a law-abiding way.

The exiled Comanche Tonto, whose life Reid saved, is determined to help Reid in his vengeful mission, although he is quietly scornful of the white man's law. Tonto believes -- or says he believes -- that Reid is a "spirit walker," a man who cannot be killed. Reid takes a lot of convincing before he finally agrees to become, well, the Lone Ranger, and leaps into action, six-gun blazing.

Actually, the movie should have been called "Tonto." It is the Indian who tells the story, in a clumsy framing device -- he's an ancient wax figure in a 1930s historical tableau who suddenly comes alive. Looking like the ancient Dustin Hoffman in "Little Big Man," he croaks out the tale of the early days of the Lone Ranger and Tonto to a raptly attentive boy in a Lone Ranger outfit.

Tonto is the driving force for much of the action, when he isn't doing odd things with magic birdseed or mugging for the camera. Depp gives us more than enough of his patented Buster Keaton straight face, expressionless but somehow replete with ironic meaning. Indeed, about half the time, Depp and director Gore Verbinski seem to be playing "The Lone Ranger" as a comedy, a notion that worked well for them with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, but is less successful here. It's almost as if Depp and Verbinski were so busy making fun of their own movie they forgot to make it entertaining or engaging, at least until the end.

The story is a tangled one involving a railroad mogul (Tom Wilkinson) poaching tons of silver off Comanche land in Utah (as far as I can tell, the Comanches had no land in Utah, but never mind). The dirty work for the supposedly respectable mogul is taken care of by his ghoulish principal henchman, a bloodthirsty and bloody-lipped outlaw with the too-cute name of Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Every time Butch and the mogul seem to be succeeding in their dastardly mission, Tonto and the reluctant John Reid stop them.

By the end, Reid has become the Lone Ranger. He rides into the sunset, with Tonto by his side. The whole affair feels as though it was designed to be the first in a series of "Lone Ranger" films, but I'm not sure that making the audience sit through two hours of boredom and confusion before giving it 30 minutes of thrills is going to inspire many to come back for more.

On a related subject, in the months leading up to the release of "The Lone Ranger" people raised objections to two aspects of the movie. First, some questioned why Tonto isn't played by a Native American. Depp has replied that his great-grandmother was a Cherokee, which may or may not be the case. In any event, the movie in question is a lightweight horse opera based on a popular radio and TV serial, and not "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." If it were, the question might be a valid one.

The second objection has to do with Tonto's eccentric attire, and particularly the bird on his head, clearly a magic talisman of some sort. A Native American professor at UCLA has said, "That costume ends up making us look like a bunch of oddballs with dead birds on our heads."

I like the reply I found on a Native American chat website, posted by a person identified as "E." He or she wrote:

"Oh, for God's sake. Johnny Depp walking around in that get up most certainly does not make ALL first Americans 'look like a bunch of oddballs with dead birds on our heads.' It makes Johnny Depp look like an oddball with a dead bird on his head!

"If any jackass sees this movie and walks out of the theater believing that all this time he has been hoodwinked by all the first Americans who haven't dressed like this, are we really concerned with that person's opinion?"

Opens Wednesday July 3

'20 Feet From Stardom'

If you ever doubted that great rock and roll is rooted in black music, "20 Feet From Stardom" should serve as a strong corrective. The fine documentary focuses on the black singers who added soul power to the hit songs of such white performers as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed, as well as black stars such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Ike and Tina Turner.

The film, directed by Morgan Neville, features interviews with stars such as Jagger and Springsteen as well as such superb backup singers as Darlene Love, whose credits go back to Sam Cooke and Frank Sinatra and who now is a solo act; Merry Clayton, a preacher's daughter who was called up in the middle of the night to add high-note passion to the Rolling Stones' apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter," and Judith Hill, who was set to go on tour with Michael Jackson when Jackson died.

Hill, a marvelous singer, was recently a contestant on "The Voice," and her elimination by popular vote in a relatively early round caused her "coach" on the show, rocker Adam Levine, to mutter "I hate this country."

The singers give remarkably personal insights into the hard work and sheer luck that go into success in the music business. The interviews are accompanied by some of the best rock music ever recorded.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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