Depp's Tonto is real star of 'Lone Ranger'

If the new big screen-version of The Lone Ranger seems like Pirates of the Caribbean in the old West, there’s good reason for it.

Johnny Depp stars as Tonto, a wandering Comanche and an eccentric character in the mold of the Pirates’ movies’ comically meandering Capt. Jack Sparrow. Also on board from the Pirates crew are producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.

Other similarities between the blockbuster, ongoing Pirates series and The Lone Ranger include an intensely ugly villain. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, for instance, features Bill Nighy’s octopus man, Davy Jones. The Lone Ranger has William Fichtner as the grotesque Butch Cavendish. And in the absence of a bunch of slimy pirates, this latest Depp adventure has a gang of scruffy outlaws.

In characteristic Bruckheimer style, The Lone Ranger contains elaborately staged, marathon action sequences and massive explosions. Largely set on runaway trains, the stunt-filled scenes are impressive. Saving the famously stirring Lone Ranger theme for the biggest and best of these scenes adds to the excitement.

The movie may be called The Lone Ranger but Tonto and the Lone Ranger would have been a more accurate title. Depp’s Tonto is the film’s principal character. Armie Hammer co-stars as a fledging Lone Ranger in the sort of pretty boy, goofy but well-meaning role Brendan Fraser would have played early in his career.

Curiously, and not so effectively, the film opens in San Francisco in 1933. An aged Tonto is appearing then and there in an exhibit titled The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat. It’s there that Tonto, played by Depp in sagging prosthetics, tells a boy wearing a mask and cowboy hat (Mason Cook) the story of Tonto and the origin of the Lone Ranger. It’s not a traditional cowboys versus Indians tale.

Whether he’s the ancient, storytelling Tonto or the middle-aged Tonto in the midst of the action, Depp plays the wily Injun low-key and deadpan. The actor, no stranger to heavy makeup though he is, must portray Tonto through especially thick makeup and wide streaks of paint. Seems counterproductive to render such a recognizable star so obscurely.

At Depp’s insistence, the film sends a message by framing the West’s white settlers, or at least the most powerful and greedy among them, as well as the U.S. Calvary, as brutal villains who destroy Native Americans.

Tonto is on a lifelong quest to find and kill the vicious white men who massacred his entire village decades before. His mission intersects with the future Lone Ranger, aka John Reid, when Reid returns to the West to be his hometown’s district attorney.

Reid, unlike his lawman brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), is ill-equipped for fighting outlaws. Much of the movie’s comedy comes at his expense. Tonto, for one, in his understated way, is quite amused.

But when a Spirit Horse, as Tonto and his kind call white horses who have mystical powers of perception, picks Reid, rather than his brother, to become a great and invincible warrior, Tonto begrudgingly goes along.

Reid, who soon is given a mask to wear by Tonto, is miraculously lucky in a movie magic kind of way. Maybe the Spirit Horse that becomes Reid’s faithful, resourceful steed, Silver, was on to something after all.

Joining Depp, Hammer and Fichtner in the principal cast, Tom Wilkinson, a formidable British actor who’s twice been nominated for an Oscar, co-stars as Latham Cole, a railroad man with a hidden evil agenda. Ruth Wilson, also British, co-stars as the object of the Lone Ranger’s affection. She’s a tough woman of the West who nevertheless nicely plays the damsel in distress.

Spectacular train scenes aside, the pleasures in The Lone Ranger are, like its Indian hero, often muted. And as shamefully treated as Native Americans were during the U.S.’s western expansion, scenes of slaughter in a film from which most people are expecting escapist entertainment seem heavy handed and out of place. But there’s still some fun to be had and the movie’s massive budget shows up on the screen.