Film review: 'The Lone Ranger'

Jul 3, 2013

Johnny Depp's portrayal of a minority sidekick character has drawn some controversy.
Credit Flickr/Peter Mountain

Current State's newest contributor MSU professor and filmmaker Jeffrey Wray offers commentary on art of cinema.

For his debut, Wray only had to see the trailer for Disney’s "The Lone Ranger", which opens nationwide today, to offer us these thoughts...

The other day I went to the movies. I arrived a bit early to catch the trailers and make my mental notes: must see, might see or wait for that one to come out on DVD. 

I saw a trailer that surprised me a bit.  It was for “The Lone Ranger.”  And of course what threw me most was Johnny Depp playing Tonto. “The Lone Ranger” is an American classic first heard on radio, then in books, then seen in movie serials.  The most  famous “Lone Ranger” is from early television with Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as his trusty sidekick Tonto. 

For the new Disney movie I was hopeful that the trailer would offer evidence of a fresh story and perhaps a reconsidered Tonto. Johnny Depp going Native is certainly a different concept, but as soon as he spoke up in character, any hope I had for a new Lone Ranger and revisionist Tonto was dashed.

I really hope I am wrong, but from the trailer, Depp’s Tonto seems to be the same old sidekick in support of white man’s justice.  The only difference being, in this 2013 version, a white man plays Tonto.  Love Johnny Depp. He channeled a great Keith Richards playing a pirate. He is one of the most likable and bankable movie stars in the world.  I understand all of that. But I also know that the colored side kick as sub-servient stock character shows up in too many American classics: Kato to the Green Hornet, Bill Bojangles Robinson to Shirley Temple, Sam’s melancholy piano to Bogart’s lovesick Rick,  Sammy to Rat Packers Frank and Dean, Hadji to Johnny Quest and on and on. A mystical, feather headed Johnny Depp in red face, speaking stilted, halting English feels very retro. And not the cool, hip kind of retro.

For the sake of contrast, I looked back at 1974’s “Blazing Saddles.”

With this film, Mel Brooks turned the classic American Western on it’s head. “Blazing Saddles” was silly, profane, subversive and funny.  It featured Brooks himself in a minor role as a Yiddish speaking Indian chief.  At its most brave, the film had Cleavon Little as the heroic black sheriff saving a town under siege. Gene Wilder as his white sidekick, a down and out gunslinger.  Not your father’s John Wayne western, “Blazing Saddles” was forward thinking almost 40 years ago and still is today.

I get the feeling that new “The Lone Ranger” will be no “Blazing Saddles.” Then again, I could be wrong.  But just from the trailer I will probably wait for this latest Lone Ranger to show up on DVD before giving my final thumbs up or thumbs down to Kemosobe and Tonto as played by Johnny Depp.  This time maybe he’ll channel a little Mick Jagger.