Tonto gone gonzo

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in The Lone Ranger.

The past few weeks have yielded two high-priced servings from Hollywood of updated spins on pop-culture franchises that held iconic places in the childhoods of Baby Boomers, but that have come to seem rather square and passé in recent decades: Superman and the Lone Ranger. I’m going to go out on a long limb here and declare the latter a far superior movie to the former, and a whole lot of fun besides.

In so doing, I part company with the majority of my film-critic colleagues (not for the first time). Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger was immediately savaged by most reviewers, and before its opening weekend was half-over, it was being derided as this year’s equivalent of John Carter on the scale of colossal money-losers. Moviegoers are staying away from it in droves, it seems, heading instead to the sequel to the popular animated flick Despicable Me or a concert film with comic Kevin Hart.

Funny thing, though: The audience that applauded with wild enthusiasm at the end of the screening of The Lone Ranger that I attended on July 4 apparently hadn’t gotten the message yet that they were supposed to hate it, or to be bewildered about what age segment it was targeting. And if you compare audience ratings to professional critics’ ratings on websites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, there’s a clear and very broad divide between the opinions of the culture vultures and the vox populi. I’m coming down with the lowbrows on this one, and very curious to see whether positive word-of-mouth will confer any “legs” on The Lone Ranger after a disastrous opener.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that too much of the early buzz on this movie consisted of confused speculation about whether Johnny Depp’s depiction of Tonto was a more or less insensitive portrayal of a Native American than Jay Silverheels’ had been back in the ‘50s. You can find all the arguments pro and con online, so I won’t use up the rest of my column inches on that question. But I will say that, given the gonzo-humor flavor of the whole production, complaining that Depp’s Tonto is too silly or insufficiently respectful is a bit like pointing out that his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is insensitive to the sufferings of people who have been harmed by real-life pirates – off the coast of Somalia, say. True, perhaps; but you just have to hold your nose and suspend your disbelief as you step off the brink of the real world into one of Depp’s zany parallel universes, or you’ll miss all the jokes.

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