Meh, Silver! -- Bloated "Lone Ranger" is no train wreck but needed more giddyup

The Lone Ranger (2013)
149 min., rated PG-13.

Turning a theme park ride into a billion-dollar movie franchise seemed pretty unlikely, but Walt Disney Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer pulled off the numbers. Retrofitting a generally well-known property, like a 1933 radio show which then spawned a popular TV series, movies, and comic books, with today's new-fangled technology and effects-laden noise is old news in Hollywood. Positioning itself as a summer tentpole in the template of "Pirates of the Caribbean," only now set in the Old West, "The Lone Ranger" re-enlists the same team with director Gore Verbinski ("Rango") and marquee star Johnny Depp. Aside from the fact that Depp is essentially playing Captain Jack Sparrow in war paint, this epic oater is just as bloated, plotty, and nomadic. While it has enough going for it to not be a total bust, the film is a consumer product of empty calories that which you can consume and then go about your summer without giving it a moment's thought.

1869, Colby, Texas: it is time for the construction of the transcontinental railroad, spearheaded by lawman Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who has signed a treaty with the Comanche tribe. An upstanding but bumbling city district attorney, John Reid (Armie Hammer) becomes the sole survivor of an ambush by recently escaped miscreant Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and his men. He's "brought back to life" by a Native American named Tonto (Depp) and convinced of being a "spirit walker." Now, John dons the white cowboy hat and a black face mask, and mounts his white horse, Silver. Though he doesn't believe in guns, he believes in delivering justice to those who slayed his deputy brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), who has left behind his wife, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), also John's childhood friend, and their son Danny (Bryant Prince). Might there be a conspiracy afoot and will the two outlaws unearth its leader?

Running a butt-punishing 149 minutes, "The Lone Ranger" should have gotten out while the getting was good. It has a relatively entertaining opening half-hour that segues into a slack midsection of incidents, climaxes, and figurative tumbleweeds rolling in. Finally, before it's too late, a spirited, grandly staged set-piece aboard two parallel moving trains, cued to Rossini's well-known, toe-tapping "William Tell Overture," offers the only real joie de vivre. Stuffed to the gills with extraneous characters, not one but two major heavies, Tonto's grim backstory, and a useless framing device told from the perspective of the now-ancient "noble savage" in a carnival museum exhibit to a wide-eyed young boy (Mason Cook) in 1933, San Francisco, the script by screenwriters Justin Haythe ("Snitch") and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (who co-wrote all four "Pirates" movies) is a lumbering load. There also is talk of pocket watches, silver, and mysticism, and some rabid, ravenous bunnies make an appearance.

With sidekick Tonto joining his catalogue of gonzo, eccentric characters, Depp plays deadpan, kooky, and playfully jokey as he always does. This time, he sports a dead raven (which he keeps feeding crushed corn) on his head and makes his "Make a trade?" line amusing a couple of times, but there's really no distinguishing him from any other odd role. As John Reid and the so-called "Lone Ranger," the handsome and charismatic Hammer is relegated to ham and mug, as if he were straining to be goofy. As he plays the eponymous character as such a wimpy chucklehead, one almost forgets he's supposed to eventually become the masked, horse-riding hero, until we're well into Act III. Fichtner is savage and menacing in the make-up as grimy, hair-lipped baddie Butch Cavendish, who likes nibbling on human hearts (which is something "World War Z" shied away from, and that was actually about zombies). A spitting image of either Michelle Monaghan or Emma Stone, Wilson has a strong presence herself as John's love interest. Last and least, Helena Bonham Carter is treated as a mere afterthought as a brothel owner who only figures into the plot because of her ivory prosthetic leg doubling as a firearm.

Sitting back and watching "The Lone Ranger," one is still able to admire the technical treats, including the on-location shooting in New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah; Bojan Bazelli's stunningly desaturated widescreen cinematography of the vistas and canyons; and a rousing Hans Zimmer score. Visually, it has that classically dusty, good old-fashioned feel of a classic western but very little of the sustained energy. On the filmmakers' part, it's a big miscalculation when "epic" really means overlong, but mere patches of fun and excitement do not a summertime western make. Whereas Disney's swashbuckling high-seas franchise began to tread water by the third (and yet a fifth is already in pre-production), "The Lone Ranger" gets cottonmouth all too early to kickstart a franchise.

Grade: C +