Johnny Depp has hit rock-bottom

More isn’t always more. Gore Verbinski’s new Disney flick The Lone Ranger is nothing more than a bloated toy commercial.

Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

As a kid, there was nothing I hated more than tuning in to The Wonderful World of Disney on a Sunday afternoon and finding a mothballed Western like The Apple Dumpling Gang instead of my precious cartoons. Disney Westerns promised me gun-blazing action and gave me Don Knotts pratfalling into a horse’s trough — a promise that has since become invalidated by the partnership between Disney and action shlockmeister Jerry Bruckheimer. Their expensive, epic-scale adaptation of The Lone Ranger promises gun-blazing action and delivers pretty much only that: two-and-a-half-hours of bridges exploding and cowboys jumping off trains. What I wouldn’t have given for just a second of Don Knotts face-planting into a cactus.

The Lone Ranger reunites the core team behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (director Gore Verbinski, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and ambulatory quirk machine/star Johnny Depp) and, while the presence of horses and 10-gallon hats might suggest a lateral evolution, what we have here is merely more of the same. It has the same sense of chaos on a grand scale, the same Johnny-Depp-as-addled-trickster-sidekick shtick, the same broad sense of humour and the same drawn-out, overstuffed, twist-heavy approach to storytelling (how many times can all hope be lost for our heroes?).

John Reid (Armie Hammer) is an educated lawman who rides the train back to his hometown hoping to find a job, but instead finds himself thwarting the escape of cannibalistic psycho Butch Cavendish (a scenery-chewing but ultimately wasted William Fitchner) with the help of a spacey, proverb-spouting Comanche named Tonto (Johnny Depp, slathered in death-metal corpse paint with a dead bird strapped to his head). Deputized by his heroic brother Dan (James Badge Dale), John heads out on a mission but is quickly ambushed by Cavendish and his gang, who murder the entire party and leave Reid for dead. Revived by the similarly revenge-seeking Tonto (who considers him a ‘’spirit walker’’), Reid dons a tiny leather mask and becomes the Lone Ranger, intent on exacting a revenge that will take him straight to the nefarious railroad baron (Tom Wilkinson) who has his own plans for Dan’s widow (Ruth Wilson) and son.

First things first: no, Johnny Depp has no business playing a Native American and, yes, his performance leaves a sour taste in your mouth. The only thing that saves it from being outright offensive minstrelsy is the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Depp has not really put anything across that isn’t in line with his usual brand of eccentric whimsy. Part Hunter Thompson, part Jack Sparrow and part Sam from Benny & Joon, his Tonto is less a deliberately offensive caricature and more of a lazy retread by an A-list actor who’s found his niche and has no desire to stray from it. One assumes that if Tonto was written as a seven-foot space alien, conquistador or a cross-dressing investment banker, Depp would’ve played him exactly the same way.  Placed against Hammer’s blandly all-American good-guy (shades of similarly blond, charisma-challenged Orlando Bloom in the Pirates movies abound), he’s a weird sketch-comedy character forced to jump from train to train between forced non-sequiturs.

In keeping with this general aura of laziness, director Gore Verbinski shows very little propensity for expanding upon the source material or somehow spinning a yarn worth sticking around for; he relies on a thundering assault on the senses, tedious franchise-building and seemingly endless unravelling of the plot to support what amounts to little more than a bloated toy commercial.

When not pilfering his own work (particularly his much superior Johnny Depp-starring Western Rango), Verbinski leans heavily on classic Westerns and action movies for inspiration, cribbing the old-man-telling-life-story wraparound structure from Little Big Man, a shackled-to-each-other action scene from The Defiant Ones and various scenes, lines and costumes from classic Westerns. Despite all of this self-awareness and admittedly superlative art direction, The Lone Ranger never feels like much of a Western. Often dipping into idiosyncratic nonsense (Helena Bonham Carter plays a madam with a machine-gun leg, for example), it exemplifies the tiresome more-is-more approach that permeates a certain level of blockbuster. It’s charmless, mechanical large-scale filmmaking, designed to spawn endless sequels and sell Happy Meals. ■

The Lone Ranger opens today

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