According to Forbes the US box office for The Lone Ranger from its release last Wednesday 3rd to Sunday 7th July, was $48.94 Million. The movie that cost Disney $220 Million, was totally overshadowed by Despicable Me 2. With a staggered world release throughout July to August the film may well recoup its production costs. However, this has not been the resounding domestic box office success that it’s makers hoped for. It joins Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Tron: Legacy and John Carter on the ever increasing list of ill conceived “popcorn movies” from this iconic studio. It may also be indicative of the pending Hollywood implosion that Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas were talking about recently.
What fascinates me the most about The Lone Ranger debacle is that how any modern studio could think that relaunching this franchise was a good idea. I am not aware of any of my peers who thought this movie was going to be a success. My son who is closer to the target demographic was not impressed by the marketing campaign. The trailers promised a large, bombastic, self indulgent spectacle, which is exactly what the public got and they were not impressed. When will studios learn that endless special effects and action sequences without any engaging narrative or performances are simply trying after a while. The Lone Ranger runs for one hundred and forty nine minutes.
Is the problem the Western genre itself? No I do not think so. In the right hands they can still be the medium for a well crafted drama or mainstream action film. Consider the 3:10 to Yuma and even Django Unchained. However, simply combining the trappings of the West with the usual bluster of contemporary Hollywood action movies (especially the current vogue for the Super Hero genre) and you are often left with a rather stilted misfire. Jonah Hex will suffice as an example. The sad reality is that many studios see a standard formula these days and think, erroneously, that it can be crow barred into any subcategory or niche market. They still haven’t grasped that the problem lies with the business model itself. You would have thought the penny would have dropped back in 1999 with The Wild Wild West.
What saddens me the most is that despite all the negative factors associated with The Lone Ranger, there are some good ideas and concepts that could have been developed into a far better movie. The production design and the ambience is extremely good. There are nods to the golden age of the Western movie, Buster Keatonesque action scenes and homages to the spaghetti Westerns. But the narrative fails to explore so many of the ideas that are touched upon. The role of the railway companies in opening up the West, the treatment of native Americans and the juxtaposition of ongoing gentrification against the frontier mentality and it’s penchant for violence, are all themes that are left undeveloped.
The biggest liabilities of this production are director Gore Verbinski, who’s career peaked with Mouse Hunt and Johnny Depp as Tonto. Verbinski fails to reign in his excesses and squanders the talent at his disposal. Also the decision to cast Depp was a mistake. Although he was formally adopted by the Comanche Nation and I’m sure his intentions were not ill, his star status and the ghost of Captain Jack Sparrow completely overshadow his role and the performances of all other actors in the movie. Why could we not have a native American actor cast for the role? The only person who comes out of the entire proceedings relatively unscathed is Armie Hammer. His acquits himself well despite the limitations of the character and has a personable demeanour to complement his matinee idol countenance.
After the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, there was renewed interest in traditional “high adventure” movies and as a result, every studio scrambled to try and capitalise on the success of Indiana Jones. Many old school franchise were dusted off and scrutinised to see if they could potentially fit the bill and strike box office gold. This is how we got the last major incarnation of John Reid, in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, which seemed somewhat anachronistic to cinema audience in 1981. It was a commercial and critical failure despite having a quality pedigree. The movie featured performances from Jason Robards, Cinematography by László Kovács and a John Barry score. It’s lead actor Klinton Spilsbury has long since been consigned to cinematic oblivion.
Some popular dramas are very much a product of their time and shaped by the wider politics and culture of the day. The simplicity and innocence of The Lone Ranger and its associated philosophy are difficult to re-imagine for a modern audience. A greater depth is required and possibly a degree of post modern political sensibilities and a healthy does of cynicism. Unfortunately these were either too insubstantial or simply not present in this multi-million dollar remake, as the studio is about to find out to its cost. I’m sure in the months to come Disney will be doing a great deal of internal auditing to try and determine why they cannot replicate the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I suspect they may not immediately learn the answer. I suspect all hopes at board level will now be focused on the new Star Wars movies. If these fail the fallout may be catastrophic. As for The Lone Ranger, I cannot see a return to the big screen in the immediate future.