FRESH POUR: The Lone Ranger (2013) / Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

The Lone Ranger / dir. Gore Verbinski  / Walt Disney Pictures

The Lone RangerThe Lone Ranger is one of the more unfortunately regarded flops this year – already, it’s completely tanked at the box office, and critics are absolutely ravaging it. The ill-timed film comes just too late for people to remember the Pirates of the Caribbean films with any clarity, as well as long past the point of society’s Johnny Depp Fatigue, and too long after the first pictures came out of Depp playing Native American character Tonto for the whitewashing backlash to die down. It is, by all accounts, a cinematic disaster as a film itself, full of muddy characterizations, overly convoluted subplots, and severe pacing and tonal issues.

So why am I going to say that I mildly liked it?

I will preface this review by saying that I don’t think the film is greater than the sum of its parts. As a whole, the film wants to be so many things at once it stumbles frequently – a serious, gritty take on the movie Western, a lightly comic piece of ridiculousness for children, and a trenchant satire on western expansion and manifest destiny. In the right proportions, and mixed well, these ingredients can make for a wonderful end product, but here it does become a bit tiring. Scenes flutter between dark horror (the villain actually eats the heart of the hero’s brother) and slapstick comedy (most of Tonto and The Lone Ranger’s interactions). It’s also certainly overlong at two and a half hours; it’s getting to the point where big Hollywood popcorn movies are starting to experience a ‘bloat’ of runtime in order to give their audiences more bang for their buck, even when it hurts the pacing of a film. However, there are just enough things that I liked about this movie to nudge it out of a ‘skip’ verdict.

First, the supporting cast is wonderful – you’ll hardly find a greater group of actors for a genre picture of this kind in quite a while. William Fichtner’s Butch Cavendish is your standard, stock thug, but Fichtner infuses him with just enough of a dark sense of humor to make him enjoyable to watch on screen. The much-maligned Helena Bonham Carter has loads of fun in her bold, brassy (and few) scenes as an ally of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Ruth Wilson (a British character actress known for her role in Luther) makes a nice breakout into American film with just enough shades to make her kind of damsel-in-distress character engrossing. Other players like Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, Stephen Root and more manage to bluster their way through the film as well, making The Lone Ranger, if nothing else, a smorgasbord of entertaining facial hairstyles.

Now on to the central casting, and the whitewashed elephant in the room: Johnny Depp’s Tonto is, most certainly, a racist stereotypical caricature of Native Americans, mixed with a bit of Buster Keaton and every other Disney character Depp has ever played (mostly Jack Sparrow). While this is problematic, and the issue of racial representation in Hollywood is definitely a very real and concerning one, the film actually goes out of its way to condemn the stereotypical caricature of Tonto and separate his actions from representations of Native Americans. At around the midpoint of the film, the Lone Ranger and Tonto encounter a tribe of Comanche who laugh off Tonto’s oddball behavior and effectively say, “Oh, no, we’re not like that – do you really think we’re like that? What an idiot!” Basically, the film argues that Tonto’s behavior is actually due to mental illness and PTSD stemming from an incident he had as a child (which drives his vengeful thirst for justice throughout the film). While this doesn’t fix the problem of a non-native character playing an Indian, it at least takes steps to separate the stereotype from the real people, who are otherwise presented as wise, pragmatic and nuanced.

That Tonto’s weird behavior is attributed to the whole of the Native American people is implied to be a product of Tonto’s constant presence around white people (and the film’s introduction of Tonto in a strange, somewhat unnecessary bookend sequence in 1933, where he is literally put in a display in a carnival with the placard “THE NOBLE SAVAGE IN HIS NATURAL HABITAT”). The film is well aware of Tonto’s stereotypical nature, and takes some admirable steps toward mitigating the film’s representation of Native Americans through Tonto. By himself, Depp is entertaining as well, and has some decent chemistry with Armie Hammer.

Hammer himself, as The Lone Ranger, was interesting to watch; he has a great sense of comic energy, which really works for this slightly more foppish, inexperienced Ranger; however, the film didn’t do enough to transition him from principled, sheepish pacifist John Reed into the clever, brave Lone Ranger, relying on the whole “Spirit Walker” angle to do the heavy lifting for us.

The film itself seems to act as a spiritual sequel to the Pirates of the Caribbean series, as director Gore Verbinski takes the same schtick he succeeded in there and placed it in the Old West. While this doesn’t help with the bloated runtime or the problem of far too many characters, it does really shine in the Buster Keaton-esque action sequences. I’m a big fan of action scenes that are done well, and the quality of The Lone Ranger’s fight/chase/heist scenes are what really salvage a lot of the problems with the film for me. Equal parts gunfight, fistfight and obstacle course, the characters bob and weave from one train car to another and use ladders and shovels as tools, creating the same kind of Rube Goldbergian action sequences that thrilled me in Pirates.

The look of the film is also great – ever since his animated film Rango, I’ve been craving a Gore Verbinski live-action western, and I got the visual feast I wanted with The Lone Ranger. The director gives us wide, sweeping vistas that would make John Ford cry, and textured shot compositions that match the sheer dustiness of the Wild West. Suffice to say, I liked looking at the film; it’s a shame that it goes on for so long and does so little with its runtime.

Understandably, my thoughts on The Lone Ranger are conflicted; I understand the racism of the central casting, and I did feel the bloated runtime and somewhat-dire script. I even understand the film’s unfortunate contempt of the source material (When The Lone Ranger finally shouts, “Hi-ho, Silver, away!” Tonto hangs a lantern on it and growls, “Never do that again!”). However, I just can’t help but get the few comedy bits that worked for me out of my mind, nor the dizzyingly marvelous and elaborate action sequences that have been missing from films since Jackie Chan stopped being an action star. To that end, I’m giving the film a mild ‘like’ instead of a ‘skip,’ since I enjoyed myself. So there.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for The Lone Ranger:

1) Drink every time Tonto (Johnny Depp) feeds his bird
2) Drink whenever someone is gifted an object
3) Drink any time someone asks the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer), “What’s with the mask?”

Finish Your Drink When:
The Lone Ranger actually says “Hi-ho, Silver, away!”

Despicable Me 2 / dir. Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud / Universal Pictures

Despicable Me 2The first Despicable Me, while still being the kind of DreamWorks-esque irritation that fills its runtime with annoying catchphrases and loud noises, had a wonderful message to tell: supervillain Gru (a vibrant Steve Carell), in his quest to steal the moon to prove himself as a supervillain, learns how to become a parent to three adorable young girls. In the process, the film provides a powerful and much-needed message in films of this type: it’s okay to be a single parent, and you can still raise a great family and provide for your children. Now, along comes Despicable Me 2 to take that message and stomp on it, telling children that they really need a mommy, or they will literally act like robots.

In this second film, Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help stop a mysterious villain who has set up shop in a shopping mall (? Eh, whatever) and is planning on releasing a toxin that turns animals into indestructible mayhem machines. Along the way, Gru falls in love with his partner, Agent Wild (Kristen Wiig, doing her best)  and starts reforming his earlier position on supervillainy. I am not opposed to having romantic stories in kid’s films; it’s cute when done right, and I would have been perfectly fine with Gru falling in love with her only because he liked Wild. However, there are several scenes in the film that imply that single parenthood isn’t as good anymore for the kids: adorable Agnes (easily the highlight of the children, over boring Margo and unjustly-ignored Edith) is revealed to just “pretend she has a Mommy,” and she acts like a robot when she recites a Mother’s Day poem for school. Other characters, including the children, constantly try to set up Gru on dates, to which Gru abjectly (and reasonably) refuses. However, the fact that the film does give him a love interest in light of all these other things simply proves these other characters right, and it is only after Gru gets married to Agent Wild that Agnes is able to say that poem with inflection and love. The film tells us here that, for children to grow up as fully functioning human beings, they need two parents. Not only is that not objectively true, it ruins a perfectly wonderful and underrepresented message in children’s movies set up by the first film.

As for the meat of the film, it’s your standard CG-animated kid’s fare, complete with sight gags, dated music that the parents like, and adorable side characters who are tailor-made to sell toys to children. In this case, these are the Minions, the amorphous blobby henchmen of Gru who act as the film’s comic relief; in the first, they were a highlight, but in the second, they take center stage. It could be argued that Gru’s story is given less importance and screentime than the antics of the Minions, whose schtick is familiar but still somewhat entertaining. (It only really grates near the end, when they pull the same thing Dreamworks does and has them reenacting hit pop songs from the 70s and 90s – you know, the ones Mommy and Daddy make their kids listen to in the car.) The voice cast is entertaining, if somewhat wasted – Carell steals the show here, as does the little girl who voices Agnes; Wiig and the rest do their best, but they’re saddled with annoying and racist characters like the Mexican El Macho (who must enter his secret lair by dancing the salsa to La Cucaracha), the Ken Jeong-voiced Floyd Eagle-san, the fat Asian wig store owner, and others. The film takes a lot of time to make fun of these racial stereotypes, basically saying that Mexican culture extends no further than what you find at a kitschy Mexican restaurant, among other things.

I really wanted to like Despicable Me 2, and in a week where I slap a ‘like’ verdict on The Lone Ranger and hate the biggest movie of this weekend, I feel like the odd man out. However, Despicable Me 2feels tired and perfunctory; kids will like it, to be sure, but that’s almost purely because they’re waiting until the Minions to show up again and do more of their (admittedly wonderfully timed) routine. Imagination Entertainment recognizes this too: they’re moving quickly on a Minions-only spinoff film. Sorry, Gru, but you’ll be fine – you’ve got a woman in your life to turn your children into real people.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Drinking Rules for Despicable Me 2:

1) Drink anytime someone starts dancing
2) Drink whenever a Minion screams or laughs
3) Drink every time Gru (Steve Carell) is insulted
Finish Your Drink When:
The Minions start doing their babbly version of YMCA. You’re gonna need it.

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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