Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
July 2, 2013
*1/2 (out of four)
Dear Johnny Depp,
You jam with Keith Richards and have a lifetime “Play whatever quirky character you want” card signed by Tim Burton, but you, in fact, can't do everything. For example, you can't—or at least you shouldn't—darken your skin, paint your face and play a Native American character primarily used for comic relief. You wouldn't do it were the character, say, black or Asian, would you?
I get it: You and director Gore Verbinski made a boatload of money with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and in Tonto, the jokey companion to the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer), you saw another chance to goofball it up. Yet the world has changed just a bit since these heroes originated in a 1930s radio show, and your young fans unfamiliar with the source material also are unlikely to care about an unimaginative Western that registers as uninspired rather than classic. Plus, you play Tonto like a disguised Jack Sparrow and reinforce your recent tendency to adapt your characters to you, rather than the other way around. (Note: I know you have vaguely claimed to be part Native-American, but that does not excuse the way the character is treated here.)
You were wise to star alongside Hammer (“Mirror, Mirror,” “J. Edgar”). He's a likable chap and a good sport. Since his breakout turn in “The Social Network,” though, he's also appeared in exclusively misguided projects. He's reasonably effective in “The Lone Ranger” as John Reid, a district attorney who becomes a Texas ranger and has his opposition toward guns and vengeance tested after a wanted criminal (William Fichtner) kills John's brother (James Badge Dale). However, the two of you develop minimal buddy comedy chemistry because the character of Tonto is such a clown. Haha, you have a bird cage on your head. Haha, you're trying to communicate with a horse. “Do not touch rock,” you say, half-heartedly committing to the part. “Rock cursed.” Big laughs.
Maybe the overly praised “Rango” made you think another Western was a good idea and you ignored the failure of “Dark Shadows,” the last property you revived to no one's entertainment. Still, you can't have thought “The Lone Ranger” needed to be 2 1/2 hours long, uncomfortably framed around the elderly version of Tonto telling a tale to a young, aspiring cowboy. The storyline about the expansion of the railroad is obviously DOA, and the movie mistakes length for adventure and buffoonery for fun.
I watched it blankly, just as I've watched many of your performances of late that could be lifted from one movie and placed in another. I realize there aren’t any huge Native American movie stars who Disney would have used for Tonto, but please take notice that neither Willy Wonka nor the Mad Hatter found you switching races. In the film a horse may drag John through its droppings, but you're the one tarnishing your legacy.
P.S. Loved you in “Ed Wood.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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