'What's with the mask?" goes the running joke in "The Lone Ranger," a modernized, Hollywoodized, Johnny Deppified version of the classic Western serial. It winks and mugs and knocks loudly on the fourth wall, but this big-budget summer tentpole movie, directed by Gore Verbinski, also does much more.
Its to-do list is ambitious. One: Dust off a proto-superhero from the radio-drama days, and sell him to the new "Sherlock Holmes" crowd. Two: Allow Johnny Depp, whose flamboyant Jack Sparrow turned Verbinski's "Pirates of the Caribbean" films into blockbusters, to run riot as Tonto, a rogue Comanche wearing witch-doctor makeup and a crow on his head. Three: Flip manifest destiny on its head by putting the Indian ahead of the cowboy.
"The Lone Ranger" succeeds on all counts -- perhaps too well. The movie is so imaginative, so brimming with ideas that it can't quite decide what to be. (Two "Pirates" veterans co-wrote the script.) It's a rollicking action-adventure with locomotives, rooftop shootouts and a bright-white Silver who has the powers of Pegasus.
It's also a Sergio Leone epic, with railroad baron Latham Cole (an excellent Tom Wilkinson) wiping out the natives with help from henchman Butch Cavendish (a deliciously greasy William Fichtner).
Some bawdy humor comes from Helena Bonham Carter as a madam with an ivory leg. But the whole tableau is mournfully framed by an elderly Tonto telling his tale to a wide-eyed child. (It's a nod to Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man," and an excuse for Depp to wear yet another elaborate makeup job.)
I haven't even mentioned John Reid, the movie's title role. Played by a toothy Armie Hammer, he's an idealistic lawyer who must wise up to harsh reality before he can properly wear the mask. Hammer and Depp make a likable team, but Tonto is the movie's hero. Time and again, his brains and brawn help Reid -- also known as "stupid white man" -- cut the dashing figure he is destined to become.
Verbinski's animated "Rango," another hugely enjoyable but overstuffed Western (also with Depp, as the voice of a lizard), now seems like the storyboards for "The Lone Ranger." Where the whole movie is headed seems unclear, but it's certainly a thrilling ride.
PLOT In 1869, an idealistic American lawyer becomes a masked vigilante.
CAST Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Ruth Wilson
BOTTOM LINE Overstuffed but thoroughly entertaining, with imaginative updates that flip the Wild West on its head.