PAUL FREITAG-FEY LOOKS AT THE LONE RANGER (2003)

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Now’s as good a time as any to take a look at THE LONE RANGER. Not the Gore Verbinski flick that, from what reports have led me to believe, is such a bomb that it’s making negative a billion dollars every day and is so awful that it’s caused several wars and managed to go back in time in order to eat the baby that would eventually cure cancer, replacing it with Tom Arnold. Besides, our own Brad Gullickson has already come to that film’s defense.

Despite what many reviews by horrible liars have said, Verbinski’s RANGER isn’t “the first Lone Ranger movie made in over 30 years.” The research-deprived writers of the world have just seemingly chosen to forget that the franchise was turned into a film a mere decade ago, when 2003 brought us the made-for-the-WB-Network THE LONE RANGER, wooing the hearts and minds of teen girls everywhere.

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I may be exaggerating about the wooing.

Created as a pilot for a prospective series, 2003’s THE LONE RANGER was the first effort by the network to get Chad Michael Murray (or “ChaMiMu,” as he was referred to by the paparazzi [I’m pretty sure this is not true. –G]) a starring vehicle after supporting spots on “Gilmore Girls” and “Dawson’s Creek” had placed his dreamy, soulful eyes on the lockers of dozens of tweens across the nation. The network looked at what they had and, understandably, said “Umm… no. Maybe let’s try him in a derivative teen drama instead,” and “One Tree Hill” was born.

Font leftover from the short-lived Twilight Zone reboot.

Thankfully for ChaMiMu fans, the network did have the decency to air the pilot as a TV-movie, if only once, on Wednesday, February 26th, 2003, a day that will live in infamy. (It’s the day MSNBC dropped Phil Donohue’s evening talk show.) Never released to DVD, the film circulates only due to the efforts of the underground circuit and the gracious person who managed to record it that evening.

Taking the general tone of CW shows at the time, specifically the then-popular “Smallville,” the film shows the origins of the Lone Ranger and Tonto as young men who meet in Dallas. ChaMiMu plays law student Luke Hartman, who comes to town from Boston in order to visit his brother, a Texas Ranger. When he follows his brother’s group tracking down a band of ruffians known as the “Regulators” (led by the improbably named Kansas City, played by “Nip/Tuck”’s Dylan Walsh) the group is ambushed and all of the rangers are killed and Luke is left for dead, because Kansas City is a psychopath with no attention for detail.

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Hartman is found by Apache tribe member Tonto (Nathanial Arcand, an actual Native… Canadian. But still, close!), whose sister Hartman had earlier defended from a gang by brandishing a book and pretending it was a gun. (This is mildly more believable than you’d think, if only because the girl’s attackers look at Hartman with more incredulousness than fear.) Despite some rumblings from his tribe, Tonto nurses him back to health and the two journey on a vision quest thanks to spiritual guide Kulakinah, played by Wes Studi. Studi, it has to be mentioned, is clearly enjoying himself – after years of playing this sort of character, he gives the role a nonchalant cockiness that’s a lot more human than the one-dimensional dialogue he’s given.

Meanwhile, Hartman’s now-widowed sister in law (Larry Blamire regular Fay Masterson) is… um, around with their young son. And there are some other characters, like a potential love interest for Hartman and her father who’s secretly hired the Regulators to clear out the folk around town, but these are subplots that were clearly meant to be developed in later episodes, so they don’t really go beyond a setup. The rest of the film just consists of Hartman getting his Ranger groove on thanks to some ridiculous effects in which Kulakinah gives him the mask, and his efforts to learn how Tonto does a flying kick. The eventually take down the Regulators and Kansas City is killed off, because Dylan Walsh is too expensive to be a series regular.

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Directed by Jack Bender (CHILD’S PLAY 3) and written by the husband/wife team of Stacy Title (THE LAST SUPPER) and occasional “Survivor” contestant Jonathan Penner, THE LONE RANGER should be at least entertaining, but shoved through the funnel of the WB franchise-making machine, it’s just laughable. The “period” setting is barely bothered with, as characters talk the same as they would on “Seventh Heaven” or the like, and the awful early aughts rock tracks that back it (Thanks, (hed)pe!) will bring back terrible flashbacks and make you appreciate how good “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was at choosing music. There’s even a metal version of “The William Tell Overture” over the closing credits.

All of this would have been tolerable, however, if the leading actor was the least bit compelling. ChaMiMu may be fine in teen dramas, but he’s a terrible action hero. With his duckface posing and half-hearted attempts to look like a badass, he just comes off as the lead in a hastily scrapped together fan film that he directed. Granted, the movie doesn’t really give him a lot to do other than utter lines like “You know things! You can do things!” to his Apache friend, but an actor that looked like someone capable of at least holding a gun, much less firing one, would have been a good idea.

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WB certainly made the best decision to air this as a one-shot movie rather than a series – even with the dangling plot threads, you really don’t end up giving a crap about the further adventures of anyone involved. It’s got enough ridiculous moments to be vaguely entertaining for “camp” value, I guess (mostly thanks to overuse of slo-mo and the amount of gravitas awarded to every move the Ranger’s spirit guide horse Silver makes) but it’s mostly just kind of “meh” in the way 80 percent of the WB’s output was.

And it could have been a lot worse. You could have seen the Lone Ranger team up with the Brady Kids in order to get Silver out of a treehouse in a Saturday-morning cartoon aired over thirty years earlier.

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(A minor tangent. Kids’ cartoons from the ’70s are, with virtually no exception, awful. I grew up with them and have a certain sense of nostalgia, but that’s all there is to it — save for airings of old Warner Brothers cartoons and the occasional “Battle of the Planets,” the ’70s were a vast wasteland of terrible animation, rudimentary plotting and bland writing. This was a time where cartoons had laugh tracks, because that was really the only way to express the idea that what was happening on screen was supposed to be a joke. Anyone who grew up in the ’70s who says something like, “Cartoons were so much better in my day,” needs to be slapped, tied to a bean bag chair and forced to watch an entire season of “Goober and the Ghost Chasers.” They will be willing to shove needles in their fingernails for the chance to watch an episode of “Phineas and Ferb” by the end of the first commercial break.)

“The Brady Kids” was an animated spin-off of “The Brady Bunch” produced by slapdash chunkmeisters Filmation in which the parents have mysteriously vanished (as Robert Reed and Florence Henderson had something, anything, better to do) and the now-cartoonized kids are voiced by the same actors who portrayed them on the live-action show, at least until the second season, when the older ones realized how terrible this thing was and were replaced by the voice actor equivalents of Geri Reischl. Tiger the dog was suddenly called “Mop Top” and voiced by Larry Storch, who also lent his talents to an additional character, a talking mynah bird who was also a wizard and got the kids into trouble. There were also two pandas for some reason, named Ping and Pong, because ha ha, Ping and Pong. And, of course, a laugh track.

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THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, PEOPLE. THE ’70S WERE A TERRIBLE TIME.

The Brady Kids incidentally teamed up with a few notable franchise characters during their first season, including Superman and Wonder Woman, the latter no doubt proud that her first animated appearance will always be noted as having been a team-up with a six-pack of irritating brats and a magical bird. The fourth episode, however, was the first of these cross-overs, thanks to Bobby Brady’s enthusiasm for joining the Lone Ranger fan club.

It may sound a bit odd to have the Lone Ranger as a guest star in a kid’s cartoon in 1972, but the Clayton Moore-starring television show was still in syndication on weekends at the time, and Moore was still making the occasional appearance as the Ranger in commercials like the one below. In addition, a Filmation-produced cartoon series in the late ’60s helped keep the legend alive. He may not have been a huge star, but he was a cultural icon that people knew beyond being “That guy with the mask with the kinda racist sidekick.”

Anyway, as the kids gather in their treehouse, Bobby excitedly opens his “Lone Ranger Fan Club” package (or at least as excitedly as Filmation animation techniques allow) to reveal a metal badge, which the other brats all say is tin by Bobby insists is silver. Then the wizard bird thing tries to use alchemy on the fan club badge and the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, appears in the middle of the treehouse. Stunned by this, the group then tries to figure out a way to get Silver out of the treehouse, and soon discovers that the Lone Ranger and Tonto have appeared as well, though they’re just wandering around town.

Tonto, ever the wise one even if speaking horribly broken English, attempts to leave the cartoon and go to Alaska, but the Ranger drags him along their door to door quest to figure out where they are. Soon the pair meet up with the kids, who’ve been wandering around trying to get a derrick by going to construction sites where the use of apostrophes is questionable.

Is his NAME Derrick?  What is going on here?

Meanwhile, there’s also a gang known as “The Masquerade Men” (a wanted posted helpfully points out their names as “Dan and Ben”) who are named such as they wear masks, causing zaniness and confusion with our time-jumping guest stars. After the kids and heroes convince the police that the duo are, indeed, the Lone Ranger and Tonto by showing them a bullet and the kids sing a song about friendship in which Ping and Pong have disagreements but then hug (SERIOUSLY, ’70S, I HATE YOU.) they all go off to an abandoned mine the gang is using as a hideout, causing more zaniness and confusion.

It all ends with the bad guys impersonating the heroes with some improptu and frighteningly accurate Lone Ranger and Tonto outfits, but a quick puzzle and their true identities are revealed. The crisis solved, magical wizard bird thing with the voice of Larry Storch sends the duo and Silver back off to the past or the television series or wherever the hell they’re supposed to be from, after the Ranger teaches one of the kids’ friends (who is ALSO voiced by Larry Storch) that he shouldn’t rely on proof of things, and should just have trust and faith in whatever people tell him. It’s a weird, stupid moral.

I'm seein' double!  Four Tontos!

As odd as it sounds, the Lone Ranger pairing isn’t even the most unwatchable of the Brady Kids’ team-ups (the Wonder Woman episode needs to be seen to be believed) and it’s probably not dissimilar a portrayal to the one of the Ranger and Tonto in the earlier Filmation series. (It may have been the same voice actor, Michael Rye, but I couldn’t confirm it.) This being a kid’s show, the Ranger doesn’t seem to carry a gun, but relies on his ridiculous wits, and there really isn’t any kind of physical conflict to be had, so as to protect the youths from the horrors of confrontation, which, as we know now, ended all violence and wars.

Sure, Gore Verbinski’s THE LONE RANGER may not be the greatest rendition of the character. It may even be a bloated, deranged mess of insanely bad ideas. But it’s hardly the first time the character has suffered such indignities, and it most likely won’t be the last. If Chad Michael Murray and the Brady Kids couldn’t take down the Lone Ranger, a painted-up Johnny Depp certainly won’t either.

 

- Paul Freitag-Fey

 

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