It’s not easy to goof on history. You have to use an era and place that are widely known, and that evoke common images, and then send it up with gleeful ridicule. The fun just follows from that. Mel Brooks made a whole career out of it: the Old West, Robin Hood’s England, Nazi Germany, not to mention the biblical Middle East.
The Lone Ranger, from Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer, tries to bring the fun of the Old West back again by re-telling the story of a pop culture icon. Gore Verbinski is a tried-and-true director of this kind of thing, viz. his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. So why is the film such a chore to sit through?
It think it goes wrong because of the history it chose to spoof. When you mix together the robber barons of the transcontinental railroad, murderous outlaws, the Texas Rangers, the entire Comanche nation and the U.S. cavalry, the comedy won’t work if you’re confused about why the bad guys are trying to kill the good guys. And why new bad guys keep cropping up all the time. And why some bad guys are trying to kill other bad guys, and why these new bad guys want to kill the good guys too, and….well, why bother. Family fun shouldn’t be such hard work.
Speaking of family fun, some of the scenes in the film are so violent, you wonder just who can be sitting on the Disney board now if something like that can go out under that famous name. I mean, seeing an outlaw mutilate a dying ranger with a knife? Not to mention cavalrymen shot by arrows, and dozens of Comanches slaughtered by machine gun fire. Did they think that adding jaunty Hans Zimmer music would make it funny?
Sometimes the original inspiration does come through, though. Johnny Depp gets some funny lines, and he is a hoot as the ninety year old Tonto telling his story to a little boy. It’s possible that the incoherent story was meant as a satiric retelling of American history from the eyes of a real native American. If so, they misjudged their intended audience. But I did like counting the number of Western classics parodied: The Searchers, Once Upon A Time In The West, Blazing Saddles, etc.
Finally, I want to add that Verbinski’s talent is evident even in this mess. One clever gag begins with a horse galloping alongside a speeding train. We cut to inside a train car, where the heroine is being attacked by the villain. He picks her up, throws her off the train and we see her falling to – certain death? – no, she lands clean, facing backwards, onto the galloping horse. We see here what could have been a nifty entertainment in the Buster Keaton tradition. Well, maybe next time.