by Steve Habrat
Just under seven months ago, Quentin Tarantino proved that there was still some life in the western genre with his bold and brutal Django Unchained, which nabbed two Academy Awards and a nomination for Best Picture. Not only did it leave this viewer hankering for more from Mr. Tarantino, but it also left me hoping that more westerns would gallop into theaters. Now we have director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a bloated, erratic, and downright frustrating summer blockbuster from Disney, a studio that should have stayed far away from this title. For many months now, I have felt that most critics and audience members have been eager to approach The Lone Ranger with knives drawn, which I thought was a bit hasty and unfair. I thought the trailers showed potential even if it did seem like Disney was forcing this project to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a huge mistake. The truth is that The Lone Ranger isn’t nearly as awful as some are claiming it is and that there is, in fact, quite a bit of potential here, but there are a myriad of problems with the film that should have been addressed before Disney gave it the okay. The biggest flaw is that Disney just couldn’t settle on a tone for the film. Is it supposed to be a dark and violent ode to Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, or is it supposed to be a winking action movie with heavy doses of slapstick camp? You just can’t have it both ways.
The Lone Ranger picks up in 1869, with mild-mannered law student John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) returning to Colby, Texas, by train to visit his brother and Texas Ranger Dan Reid (played by James Badge Dale). Also aboard the train is the sadistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (played by William Fichtner), who is being transported to Colby to be hung by Dan, and a mysterious Indian named Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), who has been tracking Cavendish. After Cavendish escapes from the train with the help of his loyal gang, Dan makes a vow to railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) to track down the outlaw and bring him to justice. Dan recruits John as a Texas Ranger and together, they set out to find Cavendish, but they soon run into a trap set by the Cavendish gang and the Reid brothers are both gunned down. Several days later, Tonto discovers the bodies of the Reid brothers and he begins an elaborate Indian burial ritual. Near the end of the ritual, Tonto is shocked to find a white “spirit horse” standing over John’s grave. As it turns out, John is still alive and Tonto is convinced that he is a “spirit walker” sent to aid him on his quest to track down Cavendish. Tonto explains that John can’t be killed in battle and that he must wear a mask to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Together, they join forces to capture Cavendish and make him pay for his horrific crimes.
The Lone Ranger opens with a crackling train robbery that really gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. It has hints of the humor that was found in Pirates while never skimping on the rollicking action we’ve come to expect from Mr. Verbinski. It seems like everything is balanced but once the sequence ends, the tone splits off into multiple directions, never to come together again. There are scenes that are effective grotesque and sinister, especially a scene in which Cavendish slices out a man’s heart and devours it, only to be followed up by a some cutesy joke from Depp’s peculiar Tonto. This duel continues on for two and a half hours, and it concludes with a finale that is so mad cap, it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. While one could point the finger at Verbinski, it really should be pointed at Disney, who seems like one day they would tell Verbinski to make the film a bit edgier and then get cold feet about the decision the next day. When things do get dark, it feels more like Verbinski’s heart is in it, but when he is forced to pull back, the whole project seems to flat line, which yanks the viewer right out of the moment. It’s just exhausting.
Then we have the storyline, which suffered from multiple rewrites during the rocky production stage. While I’m sure the rewrites contributed to some the awkward shifts in tone, it also feels like the writers are unnecessarily trying to convolute the film with hazy side plots that could have been trimmed out and saved for the director’s cut Blu-ray. There are glaring plot holes (How did Tonto break out of jail and track down the Reid brothers?), obvious plot twists that you can see coming a mile away (There is one character in particular that you know is up to no good), and a slew of characters that, yes, are very colorful but ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter). It is the same problem that plagued the second and third Pirates movies and you’d think that Disney would have learned their lesson, but I guess not. Mind you, The Lone Ranger never hits the confounding heights of those films, but it seems like the filmmakers are allowing it simply to trick the audience into thinking there is more depth here than there actually is. In a way, you hope that this is Disney’s way of really making the film worth the ten bucks you paid to see it, but I seriously doubt that Disney is being that generous.
Perhaps the biggest draw to The Lone Ranger is the performances, especially from the eccentric Depp, who also serves as executive producer here. While Depp’s name has been used to draw audiences in, the real star here is newcomer Armie Hammer, who made a name for himself in David Fincher’s The Social Network. While it was risky to cast someone like Hammer for the role, he does a fine job with the material he is given. The problem is, the material makes his character highly unlikable and extremely difficult to root for. His character doesn’t really do much, and he is constantly at odds with killing someone, even though the man he is tracking is a known psychopath with a taste for human flesh. While it is nice to see a character grapple with the decision of taking another human being’s life, I don’t think anyone under the sun was going to blame him for putting a bullet between Cavendish’s eyes, especially when he is threatening an innocent little boy. As far as Depp goes, he fares okay as Tonto, but for all the enthusiasm that he showed for the project, it is tough to really see it in his performance. As far as the supporting players go, Cater has some fun with her pointless role as Red Harrington, a brothel maid who packs heat in her ivory leg. Wilkinson is the usual burly business man as Latham Cole and Fichtner steals nearly every single scene he is in as the bloodthirsty Cavendish, a villain that is way too evil for a film that plays a nice as this does. Ruth Wilson also turns up in a small role as Dan’s widow, Rebecca, who is here to give the film a puny and pathetic love story.
For all of its problems, The Lone Ranger still has some brilliant little nods to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. There are two particular sequences that brought to mind Once Upon a Time in the West and the close up shots of scarred, sweaty, and thickly hairy gunfighters are evocative of Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. The score from Hans Zimmer is also pretty atmospheric—something that I’m sure would make Ennio Morricone smile. There are also a few funhouse moments, especially a kaleidoscope detour into Hell on Wheels, where fire-and-brimstone preachers shout about the apocalypse and sideshow barkers plead with drunken railroad workers to step right up and marvel at a parade of freaks. I guess it is the little moments that really make the movie. Overall, while the credits of The Lone Ranger say, “directed by Gore Verbinski,” the film feels like the work of several different parties, all of which were on completely different pages. It is too dark to really appeal to children but too goofy to fully appeal to adults. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto do end up returning to a theater near you, let’s hope that they make the wise decision to get serious and remain consistent.
by Steve Habrat
After Joel Schumacher and the money hungry Warner Bros. put the final bullet in the Batman franchise in 1997, the character lay dormant for many years at the studio, sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Every so often, rumors would emerge that the studio was trying to get a Batman project off the ground but you knew nothing would come of any of these rumors. There were also whispers of a Batman/Superman mash-up but that was also unlikely due to how long Superman had been sitting on the bench. Plus, if you even mentioned Batman in a normal conversation, it was followed up by laughs and eye rolling. Then the news came that upcoming filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the director of solid but small thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, was planning to reboot the Batman franchise and take it back to its darker roots. This was glorious news to anyone who was a Batman fan. In 2005, the world was graced with Batman Begins, a darker, meaner, and deadly serious adaptation of the Dark Knight that stayed furiously true to the DC comic book origins of the character. Audiences were a bit hesitant to flock to the film at first but as positive word of mouth leaked out, Batman Begins slowly became a big hit. It was a hit that made up for the Batman & Robin atrocity while also proving to both mainstream audiences and Batfans that there is still plenty of life (and brains) in this masked vigilante. It was untapped potential that the world would be starving for, they just didn’t know it yet.
In the wake of the death of his parents, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Christian Bale) travels the world to study the behavior of criminals. He is soon detained in Asia where he meets the mysterious Henri Ducard (Played by Liam Neeson), who works for a shadowy organization called the League of Shadows. Ducard promises to train Bruce in ways of battling crime and if he can make it through the grueling training, he can join the League of Shadows, which is led by the equally peculiar Ra’s Al Ghul (Played by Ken Watanabe). Bruce makes it through his training but as he discovers the sinister true intentions of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, he escapes and heads back to Gotham City, where he is reunited with his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Played by Michael Caine). Once he lands in Gotham, Bruce reveals to Alfred his master plan for saving Gotham City, which is gripped by organized crime and corruption. Bruce also tries to work his way back into the family company, Wayne Enterprises, which is slowly deteriorating at the hands of slippery CEO William Earle (Played by Rutger Hauer). Once back at Wayne Enterprises, Bruce meets longtime family friend Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman), who shows Bruce a number of prototype weapons that were shelved by Wayne Enterprises. With access to a slew of nifty gadgets and Alfred and Lucius on his side, Bruce puts together his alter ego that he plans to use to strike fear in the criminals of Gotham City. He also begins trying to form an alliance with Sergeant Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman), the last good cop in Gotham City who hasn’t given in to corruption. With all the pieces in place, Bruce hits the streets as the masked vigilante Batman and his war on injustice begins.
Throughout the two hour and twenty minute runtime of Batman Begins, director Nolan breathlessly explains all angles of Bruce’s transformation into Batman. Both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed to ever really explain where Bruce was getting all these snazzy vehicles and these high-tech weapons to battle the evildoers of Gotham City, which was always a bit frustrating to me. Furthermore, how did he ever get so good at being stealthy and how did he get so powerful in a fistfight? Nolan covers all of that and more, which was incredibly exciting as a fan of Batman. We also get a psychological look at Bruce Wayne, who is consumed and driven by fear and anger, emotions that he is taught to control. He blames himself for the death of his parents, angry that he got scared in the theater that fateful evening. Fear is ultimately the theme of Batman Begins, with Bruce’s father Thomas (Played by Linus Roache) explaining, “all creatures feel fear”, wise words that would lead Bruce to create Batman. Nolan uses this theme of fear to reflect our post 9/11 world, where American citizens are gripped by the fear of terrorism and attacks by rebel organizations that lurk in the shadows. He goes on to reinforce the idea that fear can be one of the most powerful weapons on the face of the earth, more powerful than bullets, bombs, fists, or roundhouse kicks. Entire cities can collapse through mass panic, a heady idea for a summer blockbuster.
With the psychology and reflection of a world gripped by fear firmly in place, Batman Begins can focus on the performances, particularly Bale’s Bruce Wayne. For the first time, a Batman film actually puts the most emphasis on our conflicted hero, who grapples with his identity once he pulls the cowl over his face and begins his never-ending battle. Bale is a whirlwind of emotions from the first time he is on the screen. He suffers from nightmares of a traumatic childhood event that sparked his fear of bats. We see him consumed by vengeance and anger as he contemplates assassinating Joe Chill (Played by Richard Brake), the man responsible for the murder of his parents. He coldly shuts out the affection of Alfred, who desperately tries to reach him before he disappears on his quest to study criminals. His metamorphosis under Ducard is equally gripping as Bruce learns to control his emotions, a discipline that paves the way for the awakening of Batman. This exploration of the character goes on for slightly over an hour before Bruce finally unleashes his alter ego on Gotham City but you will never once find yourself clamoring for the Dark Knight to finally emerge from the shadows. Nolan said that he wanted us to really care for the man behind the mask and he absolutely meant it. Once Bruce becomes Batman, he also has to become the reckless playboy for the paparazzi, a third side to a character that already has two interesting faces. With the reckless playboy, Bale really gets to let loose and have some fun, but the pain and longing creeps in.
Then we have the supporting players who compliment Bale quite nicely. The second best here is Michael Caine’s Alfred, who has looked after Bruce ever since they buried Thomas and Martha Wayne. He is an authority figure, coming down on Bruce after he witnesses a destructive chase between Batman and Gotham police department. We also have Lucius Fox, a gentle “Q” who looks the other way when Bruce asks him to show him the Tumbler, a heavily armored tank prototype that becomes the Batmobile. The best exchanges in the film are between Bruce, Alfred, and Lucius. Gary Oldman’s Sergeant Gordon also gets the proper attention that his character deserves, which was a huge relief for Batfans disappointed with the way Pat Hingle’s Gordon was handled in the previous films. Oldman really gives a reserved performance that ranks as one of my favorite in Batman Begins. The love interest here is Rachel Dawes (Played by Katie Holmes), who has caught quite a bit of criticism for her performance here but I fail to see where she is so bad. She only becomes the damsel in distress one time throughout the film, a strong gal who holds her own when one of the film’s main villains bears down on her. The bad guys here are Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Played by Cillian Murphy), mob boss Carmine Falcone (Played by Tom Wilkinson), and a figure from Bruce’s past that I won’t reveal here if you have never seen the film. Murphy’s Scarecrow is a real weasel of a villain, one who really uses fear to manipulate and intimidate. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a nod to Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, a snarling mob boss who controls the law in Gotham. There is also the superb Liam Neeson as Ducard, a father-figure mentor who hides a devastating secret that will rock Bruce’s world.
Batman Begins is heavy on the human drama and the raw emotions but it also delivers plenty of thrilling action to satisfy the summer movie crowd hungry for explosions. An extended car chase will get the adrenaline flowing and a massive prison break that unleashes hundreds of psychos into the streets of Gotham will have you holding your breath. There are plenty of twists and turns in Batman Begins that will keep you guessing about certain characters, with a slow build plot of destruction that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. The film is relentlessly dark, disturbing, and violent, with plenty that will terrify the children who will want to see it. Batman Begins does come with a few flaws, mostly in the way that Nolan cuts his fight scenes. They are marred by a strobe light approach that makes some of the battles incomprehensible, which was slightly disappointing. Flaws aside, Batman Begins is still an absorbing, chilly look at Batman’s rise, our post 9/11 jitters, and the psychology of a hero. It restores honor to the Batman name and makes fans everywhere proud to stand behind the Dark Knight.
Batman Begins is available on Blu-ray and DVD.