John Reid can’t stand guns.
Oh sure, he’s a lawman—after a fashion. But not like his heroic, gun-twirling brother, Dan. John tackles law in a courtroom, not on the parched trails of the Wild West. Books are his weapons, not guns. And he likes it that way.
But when despicable evildoer Butch Cavendish escapes from a train that’s taking him to be hanged, Dan and his posse of Texas Rangers must ride out to capture him. And little brother John—newly arrived to the dusty town of Colby, Texas—gets deputized too.
Hot on the trail of Butch and his gang, the Rangers are ambushed in an exposed canyon. Dan and all his brave buddies get gunned down—John included.
Lucky that Tonto and that weird spirit horse come by.
The Comanche was, in truth, just planning to sift through the bodies and make a few “trades”: He’d take something of value and leave something in return—a feather, a stick. Something. He’s surprised when that beautiful white horse (whom Tonto believes is blessed with supernatural powers) takes a special interest in John’s supposed corpse. If the horse is filled with a spirit, he really should be more interested in Dan, John’s much more skilled and dangerous older brother. Dan’s the noble warrior, Tonto thinks. Surely, if anyone deserves to come back from the dead, it’d be Da—
But no, the horse keeps plodding over to John’s shallow, dusty grave.
And so Tonto, never one to look a gifted horse in the mouth, hauls John’s lifeless body back to camp and mystically nurses him back to the land of the living. When John comes to, Tonto tells him he’s now a spirit walker, back from the dead and unable to be killed in battle. He gives John a mask made from his dead brother’s vest and encourages him to avenge the deaths of the Rangers and cleanse the West of a little evil.
John tentatively agrees, but adds that he won’t kill Cavendish. If he goes after him, it’ll be only to bring the guy to justice.
“Justice is what I seek, kemosabe,” Tonto grimly agrees.
Tonto has his own reasons for going after Cavendish. That bad dude was one of the men responsible for wiping out his entire village, and for decades Tonto has been seeking to dish out some retribution. And while Plugged In has never been a big supporter of the sort of frontier justice that Tonto would like to deal, his determination to catch some very bad men is admirable.
Naturally, we can laud John—who, of course, becomes the Lone Ranger—for much the same reason. The Lone Ranger has long been an iconic figure of righteousness and justice in the lawless old West. And while this Disney reboot suffers a bit in comparison to our traditional view of his character, there’s little question that the latest iteration of the Lone Ranger is still out there trying to do some good and to bring justice to the dusty frontier. Both of the film’s main characters display courage and ingenuity to that end.
It’s amazing these two are friends, of course, given the racism we see onscreen. Both also try quite hard to quell growing hostilities between white settlers and the Comanche natives as Cavendish and his gang try to spark a war between the two groups (masquerading as American Indians themselves and attacking settlements to stir the ire of the populace). John and Tonto do their best to let folks know that the Comanche aren’t guilty of the attacks.
The first time we meet John, we’re given to understand that he is, at the very least, indifferent to faith. He rides to Colby in a train car full of singing Presbyterians, one of whom invites him to pray. “I’m much obliged, ma’am,” John says, holding up a volume of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, “but this is my Bible.”
Tonto’s worldview, meanwhile, is awash in Native American spirituality. As mentioned, he believes the white horse (Silver) is a spirit horse. John becomes a spirit walker. Everything’s filled with magic and portent. Even the dead crow Tonto wears on his head is a talisman: He “feeds” the thing, and every now and then it moves.
Tonto questions the horse’s decision to rescue John but says later, “Who am I to question the great Father?” Saving John involves some sort of spiritual ceremony (seen only in suggestive snippets), and Tonto insists that he brought John back from the dead. Later, Tonto tells him that nature is out of balance, throwing a piece of cooked rabbit to a legion of ravenous, fanged bunnies as proof.
Christianity isn’t treated nearly as reverently. At best, it’s shown as silly and ineffectual: Preachers bluster aimlessly; a servant crosses herself, but it doesn’t save her homestead. At worst, it’s a tool of evil and prejudice: A preacher screams, “Heathen in our midst!” when Tonto walks by, and the preacher is later seen as part of a mob hoping to kill him; a cavalry commander talks about bringing the justice of “Almighty God to the heathen,” and later massacres a tribe while shouting to his troops, “For God and country!”
A transcontinental railroad cutting through Comanche territory is described as being blessed by God. A bad guy tells a young widow and her child that he “prayed that God would send me a family that I could care for,” though he obviously has a coarser purpose in mind. Elsewhere he prays, insincerely, that the widow’s savior of a Ranger would come safely out of the desert and that he’d be blessed, “for he is in the path of righteousness.” It’s a prayer that gets answered.
Colby is home to a house of ill-repute named Red’s, run by a madam who shows lots of cleavage and sports a leg carved out of ivory. She invites someone to touch it, hiking her dress ever higher so he can get a better look. “How far does it go?” he asks. Her “girls” are all grotesquely dolled up and dressed in provocative 19th-century fashion. Tonto, we learn, is a regular visitor.
Rebecca Reid, Dan’s widow, had a romantic relationship with John years before. As Dan dies, he instructs John to take care of her. “She always loved you,” he says to his brother. John and Rebecca later kiss.
Rebecca’s affections are also being plied by railroad tycoon Latham Cole. Even while Dan’s alive, Cole inappropriately foists gifts upon her. And after Rebecca is widowed, he takes her and her boy under his “protection,” dressing her in a fine gown and drugging her (presumably to make her more amenable to his advances).
A Cavendish henchman enjoys dressing in women’s clothes. “I just love them pretty things,” he explains. Dan tells Cavendish he heard that his fellow prisoners in Tulsa “took a real shine to you.”
The Lone Ranger does not have a very lonely body count. Hundreds of people are shot and killed by both arrow and bullet, including Rangers, cavalry soldiers and myriad Native Americans. Often we see their dead bodies on the ground or in shallow puddles. People are hurt or killed via explosions, too.
Cavendish is, it seems, a cannibal. We hear stories about him cutting off feet, eyes and legs to eat. (And it’s suggested that Red’s madam lost her leg to him.) After his gang shoots the Rangers, Cavendish walks over to Dan, who’s still alive and coughing up blood, and stabs him in the gut. Off camera (though we can see part of the scene through the reflection in John’s half-open eye), Cavendish reaches in, plucks out Dan’s heart and eats it. Later, when someone cuts his face while shaving, Cavendish grabs the straight razor and licks it.
Writing about that violence, Mike Ryan of The Huffington Post said, “For the life of me, I just can’t figure out whom this movie is for, which is why I find it so fascinating. Before I saw the movie, I just assumed it would be for kids. It is not for kids. (At my screening, I witnessed wary adults lead a mass exodus of children after the villain slices out the heart of a still living human being, then takes a bite.) … I’ve never seen a movie bounce back and forth so quickly and so often between horrifying violence and campy, unironic humor.”
Further, two bad guys are killed when a log smashes into their heads. (The corpses lay on the ground, with noggins flattened beneath the log.) Horses die. A man is shot in the leg and left writhing on the floor. Multiple trains crash. After one of them plunges off a destroyed bridge, we see a man struggle underwater before he’s buried by a pile of silver ore.
Scorpions crawl on people’s faces. Rabbits display oddly carnivorous tendencies. People are thrown off trains. A bad guy scalps someone. John’s shot with an arrow. Someone’s punched several times, leaving his face bloody and raw. Tonto’s hit with a shovel. We hear about casualties at the battle of Gettysburg.
God’s name is taken in vain half-a-dozen times. We also hear eight or so uses of “d‑‑n” and a dozen of “h‑‑‑.” Someone says “p—.”
Characters drink and are shown pouring drinks. People at Red’s appear to be drunk. Silver guzzles a couple of beers. A guide appears perpetually inebriated, throwing out whiskey bottles as he rides. Rebecca gets drugged.
Tonto and John rob a bank (of nitroglycerine, among other things), with the latter telling the bank’s occupants that it’ll all be OK because they’re insured.
Cavendish urinates into a bucket. Tonto says he sterilized a needle (which he used to stitch John up with) with urine. When a lifeless John is dragged back to camp, Silver defecates … and John’s head bounces through the mess. Someone throws up.
For about 10 minutes at the end, this movie feels like it belongs in the Lone Ranger canon.
In the climactic closing battle, we see the Lone Ranger riding across rooftops on Silver as Tonto swipes a train—the beginning of an adrenaline-filled chase featuring locomotives, out-of-control ore carts, fisticuffs, wild leaps and outlandish stunts. All while the “William Tell Overture” chirps frenetically in the background.
For those 10 minutes, this movie feels fun.
Alas, The Lone Ranger is about 150 minutes long.
The rest of the film is a dark, confused slog that does more to undermine the legend of the Lone Ranger than to pay homage to it.
The Lone Ranger became popular in the 1930s through a radio show and, in the 1940s and ’50s, via television. He was, in his own a way, a Western-style superhero, full of earnest goodness and impeccable character. There was even a “Lone Ranger Code” that the television actors (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels) did their best to live by in real life: The Lone Ranger would always speak correctly. He’d never drink or smoke. Most importantly, he’d never shoot to kill, and his silver bullets were intended to remind the him that life was precious.
But life is not precious in this reboot. While John begins his career with a sense of innocence, Tonto suggests that’s exactly what it is: a childlike, perhaps even childish sense of right and wrong that doesn’t hold water in the ethically complex West.
“I am not a savage,” John says.
“You are not a man!” Tonto retorts.
The Lone Ranger winds up largely agreeing with Tonto—donning his signature outlaw mask as an outlaw (albeit a do-gooding one) rather than as an symbol of justice and modesty. He rationalizes that he must work outside the system and its invariably corrupt agents. And while he never kills anyone with a silver bullet, he does blow up a bridge, happily sending a key adversary to his death.
I wanted to like The Lone Ranger. I have fond memories of watching reruns of the show while growing up—of galloping around my house in a cowboy hat and domino mask, righting wrongs all the way across the living room.
In this retread, it feels as though the movie’s makers knew the story but lost the character. And the Lone Ranger is all about character. It’s his main reason for being. Without it, what lies behind the mask can get pretty ugly.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.