A better title would have been The Mighty Tonto and His Uninteresting, Whiny Masked Sidekick, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In this adaptation of the classic radio serial, Armie Hammer plays a bumbling lawman who pursues a dastardly villain (William Fichtner, effectively nasty) and learns to become a desert warrior through the help of Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), a Native American on a mission of vengeance.
Coming from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, mega-star Depp and director Gore Verbinski, it has the same plusses and minuses of their phenomenally successful Pirates of the Caribbean movies. On one hand, Depp is excellent, some of the swashbuckling action is great and, as they did with the long-dead pirate genre, they have brought the often-dormant western back to life.
This is the real deal: a rootin’ tootin’, spurs n’ dirt, cowboy western, minus any sci-fi or high concept cross-breeding. But it’s also bloated and over-plotted. Hammer and love interest Ruth Wilson are, amazingly, even more bland and less interesting to watch than Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Hammer was sensational playing twins in The Social Network, but in his first big leading man role, he fails to make the part his own. Making Tonto the lead was a smart move. Depp’s deep-voiced Tonto is a mostly physical turn that resembles not Captain Jack Sparrow but his Chaplin-esque Benny and Joon character.
Depp famously sparred with Disney executives over his brilliantly bonkers turn in the original Pirates. Here, he and Verbinski have pushed their offbeat tendencies even further, making a gritty, nutty and, at times, shockingly violent wild west drama, with visual nods to gonzo classics like Little Big Man and El Topo. It’s hard to say what audience this was intended for, as the overlong running time and sheer nastiness of the violence make it an odd choice for summer programming.
The typically inventive work from Depp upstages everyone else. I don’t know why an actor of Tom Wilkinson’s caliber would appear in such an uninteresting role, Helena Bonham Carter seems to have showed up because, well, Depp’s here, so why not? At least Barry Pepper looks to have kept his True Grit mutton chops in case he was cast as another cowboy.
A quiet, nostalgia-evoking prologue, set in 1933 San Francisco, seemed like a good idea, until the movie keeps cutting back to it. The depiction of unethical treatment towards Native Americans is too much for this movie and needed to be the focus of a worthier, more focused film.
Once we get to the grand finale, in which the William Tell Overture finally plays out in full and the amazing stunt work piles high, it comes too late. Perhaps someone realized the film wasn’t any fun and tried to inject the last 15 minutes with as many great moments as possible. I liked a brief scene involving scorpions, showcasing Verbinksi’s typically ghoulish sense of humor (on hand ever since Mouse Hunt, his first and still-best movie).
The post-credits shot, which I won’t reveal, is a poetic touch but will likely go unappreciated by audiences looking for a good time and not caring about social commentary. I want to give Depp and Verbinski (all right, and Bruckheimer, too) a tip of my hat for making a old fashioned western with many risky touches. Problem is, as you’re watching it, you can’t help but think about the scenes that should have been cut out. There is a bold, uniquely rebellious film in there, and it’s been weighed down by too many narrative saddle bags.
Score: ** (1-5 Star Score)