<b>WHAT IN TARNATION?</b>  Despite the heroic efforts of stars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer to salvage it, <i>The Lone Ranger</i> is a tonal train wreck.

WHAT IN TARNATION? Despite the heroic efforts of stars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer to salvage it, The Lone Ranger is a tonal train wreck.

The Lone Ranger

Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, and Tom Wilkinson star in a film written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio and directed by Gore Verbinski.

Pulpy episodic adventures like The Lone Ranger were forged in the crucible of radio, comic books, and TV. They were popular because they rushed at you, from the William Tell Overture theme song to the half-hour packed with action, humor, and snappy dialogue. The rest was imagination. Kids played Lone Ranger because they wanted to figure out what a Masked Cowboy good-doer and his Indian sidekick did between adventures. Television’s Lone Ranger annually aired an origin story that was lurid, bloody, redemptive, and over before the first commercial, but nobody really cared; folks watched the show because everything was topsy-turvy — the good guy was masked and the Indian and the cowboy were friends.

Like all the worst superhero movies, this film spends 80 percent of its time on backstory, creating a “real” or at least somewhat believable origin tale. This wouldn’t be so terrible if the vapid writers had struck upon a coherent idea or even mood for their retelling. Is it going to be innocent fun or a critique of America’s militaristic genocidal past? Should we discuss justice and social contracts (the Ranger and the Bad Guy both quote John Locke, believe it or not), or make it all into some meta-campy and easy-to-dismiss flick? The writers clearly couldn’t agree so they tried all the above, resulting in a film that changes tack every 10 minutes and goes everywhere for models — at times it directly resembles Little Big Man, Blazing Saddles, The Wild Wild West, and Back to the Future Part II. It also gets outrageously weird: At one point, a tribe of Indians is slaughtered, and a bad guy eats a good guy’s heart. What this has to do with the Lone Ranger is anybody’s guess.

You can’t blame Johnny Depp or Armie Hammer, either. They’re charming to watch, but the script gives them nothing to work with. The worst crime of all, though — a hangin’ crime for a summer blockbuster based on a classic American kids’ show — is the void where the entertainment used to be. There is simply nothing thrilling to see here.

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