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Legend of the Lone Ranger, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Nothing Here Worthy of a 'Legend'"
2 stars

A major box-office bomb that even a wide release and extensive ad campaign couldn't save.

The unfortunately-named Klinton Spilsbury is handsome, with long, thick dark-brown hair and medium-to-large physique that makes him look like a Malibu banker, and in The Legend of the Lone Ranger he's making his acting debut in the title role, with the result a bit better than expected in a year that also gave us the game-show contestant Sam Jones making his starring debut in Flash Gordon. He's not exactly physically expressive (it were as if his body had been dipped in extra-starch before each shot), and his deep baritone of a voice doesn't further endear him to us (it sounds as if he were having a pelvic strain trying to get his lines out), but his screen presence is adequate enough for the task at hand, and he's never an embarrassment to watch like Jones was. In fact, Spilsbury is the least of the movie's problems what with its patchwork of a screenplay and undistinguished directing rendering this tale of the Masked Man nothing more than a painless cinematic endeavor that will neither make you constantly check your watch nor sing the most flattering of praises about. In the early sections we see how the young John Reid was orphaned by a band of vicious white men who killed both of his parents; he was taken in by the young Indian Tonto and his family who schooled him on their customs and ways of survival. In the process, the two boys became inseparable, but when John's older brother finally locates him he sends the boy off to Detroit to get an education. Forward fifteen years later, John has returned to his Texas hometown with a law degree and plan to set up an office there; his brother has become a Texas Ranger captain, and John and the local newspaper owner's daughter have struck up a romantic longing for one other. Enter the megalomaniacal Major Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), whose henchmen slay the newspaper man for a reason not made clear to us, resulting in the Texas Rangers setting out to track them down with a deputized John coming along. There's an ambush and all the Rangers are killed except for the severely injured John; an Indian comes across the carnage and finds John still alive wearing the very same necklace his people gave to his white childhood friend. Reunited with Tonto (Michael Horse), John tames a wild white horse he names Silver, becomes an expert marksman with a pistol under Tonto's tutelage, dons a black mask, and teams up with Tonto as the crime-fighting Lone Ranger right when Cavendish is carrying out his dastardly plan to kidnap the visiting President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards) so his secession-scheming self can be granted the Republic of New Texas for him to rein over -- and, yes, it's as palpably absurd as it sounds.

Five writers are credited with the script for this eighteen-million-dollar production, and they can have it. The dialogue is penny-ante dreadful ("Let him not be judged by his skin, but his heart"), the story construction an absolute shambles (the projectionist could've switched up the order of the scenes and I doubt the audience would be wise to it), the ballad-narration by country singer Merle Haggard absurdly overstated to the nth degree ("The legend started simply, just a boy without a home; taken in by Indians, but still pretty much alone"), the characterizations as shallow as that of a kiddie pool (even on an undemanding level they're faint composites at best); and in the biggest miscalculation, the Lone Ranger and Tonto don't actually set out together until the one-hour mark (until then you're having to make due with happenstances that are all too obvious mere disposable material to pad out the running time). The Legend of the Lone Ranger, despite the many gunfights and heroic grandeur the moviemakers uncouthly keep shoving in our faces, lacks cohesion and never grabs us on the elemental level that it should because nothing whatsoever that we could possibly care about seems at stake. The hero/villain conflict is purely superficial, and being that Spilsbury isn't experienced enough and Lloyd fails at exuding the necessary menace, we simply don't care how the central conflict is resolved -- the Lone Ranger and Cavendish might as well be squabbling about who cheated who in a game of gin rummy. Perhaps something viable still could've come from all this if it'd been staged and executed with aplomb, but William A. Fraker, a top-tier cinematographer whose third directorial effort this is, doesn't bring a whole lot to the party despite his having made a fine debut with the 1970 Lee Marvin Western Monte Walsh. Like many in his field who take up directing, Fraker has trouble establishing a through-line to fluidly segue one scene into another, rendering the overall whole imprecise and clunky; and despite his experience in lensing the classics Bullitt and Sharky's Machine, the action, while boasting reasonably coherent spatial logistics, isn't any more exciting than that of a Rawhide episode (which isn't to say the stuntmen haven't done their jobs; in fact, there are probably more stuntmen than actors with speaking parts here). The Legend of the Lone Ranger is one of those ill-advised productions that has neither the context nor craft to put it over, and many of its kinks could've easily been ironed out if the people involved in it had simply thought the material through. We can accept an '80s Western that isn't up to par with the best works of, say, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah if there's some imagination and wit involved (as there was in Fred Schepisi's underrated Barbarosa), but when what's being served up is nothing more than a stale recycling of endless genre cliches, it's right up there with watching sagebrush blowing in the wind.

What few fans the movie has will be disappointed with the bare-bones DVD.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15378&reviewer=327
originally posted: 04/24/14 00:41:56
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USA
  22-May-1981 (PG)

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