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Controversy brings mixed reviews for 'The Lone Ranger'
Portrayal of Native Americans, history makes critics skeptic
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Johnny Depp portrays Tonto and Armie Hammer portrays The Lone Ranger in the western, action film, “The Lone Ranger.”

‘The Lone Ranger’
Starring: Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material.
Runtime: 2 hours, 29 minutes
Bottom line: Flawed but enormously fun

“The Lone Ranger” is shaping up to be quite a divisive movie.

The very notion of reviving Tonto, the quintessential pop culture personification of the noble savage stereotype, sparked debate when Disney first announced plans to make the film.

Because it is Disney, with its long track record of missing the mark with characters from outside Euro-American culture, many assumed the movie would be racist.

Besides, the character is what it is. If this Tonto resembles the character in the radio program or on the television series at all, it would seem anachronistic for 2013.

The way the film represents Tonto and American Indians in general, it turns out, is a bit more complicated. Just as polarizing, however, is the quality of the film itself. Early reviews range from raves to ravaging.

My own assessment is a mix of both. In some ways, “The Lone Ranger” is exactly the movie I have waited for all summer.

Somehow, the typical Hollywood blockbuster has evolved from exciting escapism to gloomy introspection. Action sequences are no longer sources of sight gags and story development. Action sequences have become excuses to destroy as much of New York City as possible, and to do it in loud, monotonous ways.

These trends are the product of superhero movies’ dominance over the box office, and both Marvel and DC are equally to blame. They seem to have forgotten summer movies are supposed to be fun.

“The Lone Ranger,” an old property with little brand recognition among young viewers, goes against the grain. Rather than updating the franchise to make it fit in among the superheroes, director Gore Verbinski, best known for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, proudly sticks to the old formulas.

The movie dares to mix wit and dynamics into its action sequences. It is equal parts comedy, adventure and Western movie tropes.

Verbinski and company set up simple scenarios and play them out, milking them for sight gags and twists in ways that recall silent films, especially “The General.” Befitting a Western, most of the action takes place on a train. Characters battle each other and play cat and mouse atop rushing railroad cars. The movie pays tribute to many classic Westerns, giving nods to “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Searchers,” and many others. Much of the film was shot in Monument Valley and other instantly recognizable locations in Colorado, Utah, Texas and Arizona.

The standard Western themes are at work, too: revenge, outlaw heroes, corruption, fathers and sons, etc.

Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as John Reid carry the film well. For all the controversy over casting Depp rather than a Native American actor, it’s hard to deny Depp’s mastery of physical comedy and outlandish characterization.The problem is whether it’s appropriate to mix lighthearted humor with depictions of Indian massacres.

Ironically, by trying very hard to update the representations of Native Americans usually associated with the Lone Ranger, Verbinski and his crew have stirred up just as much controversy. The movie’s politics are complex to say the least.

They tackle the stereotype issue directly. Tonto is now a withered old man who works as a living statue in a museum display titled, “Noble Savage.” When a young boy wanders in wearing a Lone Ranger costume, Tonto tells the real story of the ranger in flashbacks. Tonto transforms from subservient sidekick to narrator and protagonist.

Nor does the movie shy away from the history of violence against Native Americans. It graphically depicts the aftermath of an Indian massacre, an event that greatly shapes Tonto.

This revisionist Lone Ranger is, admittedly, a strange combination of elements, but it works.

I write this knowing I am committing to years of defending myself, but the movie’s adventurous spirit and wit overcome its flaws to make it the best blockbuster so far this summer.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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