The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger ★★★★★

"Witness the Wild West as it really was. The greatest show on Earth. Fun and educational for you, young sir."

Honestly – five years after its release, The Lone Ranger is probably the best blockbuster of the decade thus far. It has rivals as far as pure craftsmanship goes (Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation come to mind), but in terms of communicating grandiose ambition and sheer strength of personality through its visual storytelling, and in terms of having a script with real emotional and thematic weight and complexity, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything that comes close. That's partly because the blockbuster landscape of the 2010s is much easier to stand out in than that of the 2000s. Instead of the Star Wars prequels, we have the Star Wars sequels. Instead of Lord of the Rings, we have The Hobbit. Instead of The Dark Knight and Raimi's Spider-Man, we have the Marvel cinematic universe. Even if you were to include animated films in the running, we've gone nearly eight years without a good Pixar film.

Of course, comparison only goes so far, and I don't need to badmouth the state of modern blockbuster filmmaking (though we all know I don't need much of an excuse) to praise The Lone Ranger, which stands just fine on its own two feet. Between this and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Armie Hammer was one of Hollywood's best leading men for a couple years and no one noticed. And you can forget Jack Sparrow – Tonto is easily the best, most emotionally and comedically accomplished in Johnny Depp's cavalcade of heavily made-up weirdos. He's a real character, not just a collection of tics. Indeed, apart from Helena Bonham Carter, the whole cast is remarkable – special credit is due to James Badge Dale, who makes such a strong impression in ten minutes of screentime that his death is truly impactful, and the villainous triumvirate of Barry Pepper, William Fichtner, and Tom Wilkinson. Pepper is a gloriously, outrageously over-the-top caricature, but that lightness of touch is needed to counterbalance Fichtner and Wilkinson, who are such truly, casually monstrous antagonists that their acts of evil linger in the imagination even after the film has barreled along towards its version of a happy ending. No matter how cathartic that climactic train sequence is – and it's very possibly the best action set piece of the decade – The Lone Ranger's melancholy is its most stirring and deeply felt quality. Yet it never slips into glib nihilism, because beneath its playful, pervasive juggling of perceptions and personas and stories within stories, it treats both cynicism and romanticism with equal weight and sincerity. I'm always astonished that a film as un-patriotic as this one had the gall to be released on the Fourth of July weekend, but on the other side of the coin, for all its distrust of jingoism, The Lone Ranger never quite becomes the screed against America that some interpret it as. In its final moments, its disenfranchised hero is still framed before the red, white, and blue, flying over the courthouse that reads "Justice For All." This is a film that brutally tests and tempers its hero's idealism, but does not ultimately strip it from him. Perhaps that's what makes it so wholly, enduringly excellent: its ability to hold two contradictory narratives in tension till the end, as we all must.

Ah, well. Another Fourth of July, another time to lament that this may never get the recognition it deserves. But we can always hope...

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