Where's a technician when a script throws a rod?

I never thought I'd encounter a clumsier western goof than director Barry Sonnenfeld's "Wild Wild West" (1999). But if the movies teach us anything, it's to never say "never." Not ever.

Now "The Lone Ranger" has come thundering down the trail, and it's really something. Yes, it's something, all right. Something inchoate and undigestible, jokey one minute, sadistic the next, and probably the least fun movie of the year so far.

With some pictures, such as Disney's recent, pricey, floppy science-fiction epic "John Carter," you can feel things not quite working; the movie becomes a series of not-quites and near-misses, not disastrous but cumulatively lacking in elements usually stressed by producers and their guns for hire (rooting interests, relentless action beats, etc.). With "The Lone Ranger," there's no not-quite about it. The whole thing misfires. It's like a circle of the shakiest guns in the west, pointing their pistols at the other guys. And you know how that turns out.

One of the screenwriters of "The Lone Ranger" once worked as a machine parts inspector. The writer in question, according to imdb.com, is Terry Rossio, whose partner Ted Elliott co-wrote "The Lone Ranger"; together they collaborated on the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films; "The Lone Ranger's" third credited screenwriter, Justin Haythe, rewrote the Elliott/Rossio drafts, which reportedly contained a werewolf plot line not found in the final version.

When you think about it, inspecting machine parts is a useful line of work if you, like Rossio, eventually move on to screenwriting. What is a blockbuster if not a machine designed for mass-audience satisfaction? And what is a writer if not a rewriter, endlessly examining and retooling the logic, the sturdiness and the value of the blueprint at hand?

If the success of the four "Pirates of the Caribbean" films proves anything, it's that audiences don't necessarily care about efficient, coherent storytelling as long as there's enough other stuff to compensate. The third and fourth "Pirates" films particularly barely hold together, yet by that time audiences were committed. They remembered the Disneyland ride. They remembered being disarmed, the first time at least, by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. They enjoyed enough of the first two to get 'em back for the third. And the fourth. A fifth is forthcoming.

"The Lone Ranger" is going for something "grittier," to use my new least-favorite word in the Hollywood lexicon. "Gritty" in the wrong hands is just a cynical excuse to pile on the violence.

All Disney wanted out of "The Lone Ranger" was a new open-air adventure franchise starring Depp. What they got is a dozen different movies, in turn borrowing from dozens more, movies made by John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone. There's a little "Little Big Man," too, and of course a lot of the "Pirates" franchise.

What does "The Lone Ranger" have? It has real trains, and real track, which is something. It has an occasional flourish of real stunt work that leads to a momentary thrill. But you can't put Buster Keaton gags inside a Peckinpah movie. I mean, you can; they did. But it's jarring.

First and last, the script was never even close on this project. Where's a machine parts inspector when you need one?

mjphillips@tribune.com

@phillipstribune

CHICAGO

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