Two goofballs rattling around the desert - one uptight and twitchy, with a nice smile and a healthy head of hair, the other slathered in face paint and prancing about like a certified loon - on a high stakes mission of some nebulous sort, occasionally breaking from their humorous bickering to hop a runaway train or match pistols with the sort of criminals who exude the very odor of evil. That's The Lone Ranger in a nutshell. There's nary a moment in Gore Verbinski's latest Johnny Depp venture when you're challenged, provoked, or asked to use your brain even for a minute. Whether this is a problem - as it might be in the eyes of the scrutinizing critic who thinks even commercial art forms should leave its spectators with new questions - is up for debate. But to all those on board with setting eyes agape and just soaking in some visually inspired, harmonically engaging, and comically enchanting nonsense, The Lone Ranger is a triumph.
The setup is almost immaterial, albeit outrageously kooky: dutiful attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer) is killed along with his gruff but good-hearted sheriff brother after the two saddle up to apprehend a vicious escaped criminal, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Afterwards, a ''spirit horse'' tells a very Deppian Native American that the fallen lawyer is destined to return to life to save... um, whatever it is that need be saved. See? It's bonkers, and barely rooted in the mythology surrounding the iconic American character.
But this thoroughfare of zaniness proves that the movie not only serves its purpose as easy entertainment, it embraces it. Cracking wise at its own expense throughout its two-and-a-half-hour run (yes, it is 150 minutes long, dipping in interest in a handful of its middle low points), The Lone Ranger is never above silly humor, reality bending, or fourth wall destruction. Time and time again, the film seems to ask, ''What is the funniest thing we can get here?'' forgoing character, adherence to era-appropriate speech patterns, or general logic in the meantime. And this is the right move.
Yes, a few eye rolls might be incurred by a 19th century Native American muttering a sarcastic ''What's with the mask?'' when brought face to face with a meathead Ranger Reid on a quest for new allies. But would we prefer a film so reverent that it was humorless? One that paid more mind to legitimate world building than to one-off chuckles? A story that took itself, dare we say, seriously? In some instances, sure. But with its inherently ridiculous source material, The Lone Ranger knows that its main goal is to have fun, no matter the cost.
So we hop aboard horses and renegade locomotives, we blow up bridges and battle off crusading conmen, we slink into brothels and don railway worker disguises. We pull every silly trick in the book along with the Lone Ranger and Tonto, happy to accompany them as they dash through exciting action sequences and bicker wittily in a stellar, sun-baked Old West. And in all these efforts, we and The Lone Ranger reign victorious. When topheavy middle chapters take the stage, laying groundwork for the excitement to come, we might find ourselves yawning and checking our watches. But thankfully, a deadpan Depp shtick or laughably earnest Hammer routine is always right around the corner. All in all, the film is a riotous train ride through a beautiful countryside... it just tends to stall at one or two stations.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter