Overstuffed ‘Ranger’ could use a lone effort

Movie: The Lone Ranger; Director: Gore Verbinski; Studio: Walt Disney Pictures; Rating: PG-13; My finding: Two out of five stars.

“The Lone Ranger,” at 2 1/2 hours long, is a beautifully shot, well acted and sprawling epic – of missed opportunity, lack of focus and pointless bloat.

The first segments that should have been cut are the distracting and unneeded framing scenes where a decrepit, old Tonto (Johnny Depp, appearing in these scenes like a mixture of extra-wrinkled Al Pacino and Christopher Walken) telling a young boy with owl-sized eyes of his zany adventures with The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in 2010’s “The Social Network”).

Of course, this film was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, so you know that the entire production comes down to staging the concept of a franchise with a billion movies and as many marketing ploys and deals as possible.

The young boy is decked-out in Lone Ranger apparel, as kids may have done long ago when Westerns were pop-cinema and television mainstays. Perhaps that’s what Bruckheimer hopes to accomplish. A few million here for branded popgun sales, a few million here for white hat and black mask combo packs. But will kids really latch on?

They’d be the only ones capable of latching on to this bland rehashing of western cliches, because if the adults aren’t bored, then they may be offended.

One moment, Yugoslavian cinematographer Bojan Bazelli will pull at your emotions as a young Comanche boy walks through the remains of his village after “the white man” had stormed it to protect a silver cache from rivals, while hot embers dance through the air and bodies litter the sands. The next, he’ll be asked to pull off several gags about horse droppings.

Critics call this “tonal inconsistency,” but it’s also a missed opportunity and it’s not the only type of missed opportunity present here.

With westerns coming back slowly with the likes of 2005’s wrenching “The Three Burials of Melquiades

Estrada,” 2007’s terrifying and atmospheric “No Country for Old Men” or “There Will be Blood,” last year’s “Django Unchained,” or even director Verbinski’s animated 2011 semi-masterpiece “Rango” (which also starred Depp), there’s no reason to play a western in slapstick or camp as though it’s a genre long dead and eligible to ridicule. Especially when all the cues for a successful western are there.

There are beautiful tracking shots of wide-open Texas, with rocky buttes rising out of drifting sands. The clapboard buildings of small, pioneer towns ring at least Hollywood-authentic, and the villains seem so covered in dirt that it’s become a part of them, not even sweating off them in the high-desert heat. Everything’s right, and there are moments in the film where you think everything will come together in a fun, action-filled adventure.

Instead we’re presented with “city boy” John Reid, traveling back to his home, Kolby, Texas, as the new District Attorney. Reid is toting his “Bible,” John Locke’s “Treatise on Government,” and giving it a good read as back-to-basics Presbyterians sing to the heavens around him on his train car.

The only problem is that the murderous Butch Cavendish (powerful and menacing character actor William Fichtner), with a “taste for human flesh,” is locked up in one of the cars en route to his death by hanging to atone for his ways. To get the action started quickly, a well-executed jailbreak is performed leaving two lawmen dead and the train stuck on full power hurtling to the end of the line.

But it’s Reid’s unerring devotion to the principles of enlightenment thinkers like Locke and what he sees as the promise of a civilized future for this back-woods world keeps his heroism in check for far too long. In fact, on the range, it gets a bit boring to hear Tonto’s constant refrains of what a “half-wit” Reid is and how he’s “not a man.”

After enough extra mini-plots that both make you check your watch and wonder why more time wasn’t devoted to the main plotline of vengeance for the Comanche people and for Reid so that actual, natural character development could occur, the classic Lone Ranger theme song plays in an extended and elaborate set-piece of raucous gunplay and fighting atop, between and inside multiple trains hurtling through the unfinished lines of Transcontinental Railways, providing enough excitement and focus to give this movie a much better finish than it deserves.

Tom Wilkinson’s Latham Cole is a standout performance, although the character itself offers nothing new in the well-educated corporate man who wants to bring civilization and law and order to the Wild West. Barry Pepper, who has sort of defined himself as a contemporary western player, is quite dapper, also playing a cliched character of a prim Union captain tasked with the unenviable job of Indian genocide.

Everything was set up to be just right, but the film is overstuffed and is completely the less for it. If only there was a way to send a signal to Hollywood that we want Westerns as an audience – but not cookie-cutter box-office grabs like this disaster.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)