Move over, Kemosabe: Tonto takes spotlight from Lone Ranger

Despite Depp and Hammer's interplay, this Western throwback never finds a home on the range

To play Tonto in the weird new Western The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp wears whiteface and a dead bird on his head. The makeup may be easier to explain. Possibly Depp's white paint subtly acknowledges the fact that a non-Native American movie star has taken on the role of the title character's Comanche sidekick, a character most famously played by Jay Silverheels on the long-running TV series.

The paint also serves a practical purpose. The Lone Ranger reteams Depp with his Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, but where Depp gave a physically and vocally flamboyant performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, his Tonto is far more deadpan. Sooty black streaks around the eyes off-set Depp's white face paint, drawing attention to his eyes, which become that much more expressive and convey everything from irritation to nervousness to derision.

The mismatched teaming of Depp's Tonto and Armie Hammer's masked avenger proves to be the most appealing quality of The Lone Ranger, and nearly carries the movie. While Verbinski clearly wants to make a lighthearted action comedy full of stallions and six-shooters, the film moves in so many different directions with so many tonal changes, The Lone Ranger flies off the rails like its many runaway locomotives.

A framing device takes place in 1933, the debut year of the original "Lone Ranger" radio series, but most of the film flashes back to Texas in 1869. Tonto first meets district attorney John Reid (Hammer) aboard a train when outlaws attempt to rescue loathsome prisoner Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner with a sneering scar). John's adherence to the rule of law thwarts Tonto's attempts to exact revenge on Butch, and the mismatched heroes end up fighting crooks and rescuing passengers while manacled together in a series of slapstick stunts.

Later, John pursues Butch's gang as part of a posse led by his older brother Dan (James Badge Dale), a Texas Ranger. The gunslingers get the drop on the lawmen, leaving them for dead in a chilling canyon ambush. Tonto comes along to bury them, but a white horse — that may be a mystic spirit — nudges the reluctant Tonto to save the still-living John.

United in their desire to bring Butch to justice, Tonto and John play out a dynamic of hostile allies highly reminiscent of Depp and Orlando Bloom in the first Pirates movie. Hammer gives a surprisingly amusing performance as John, who starts out as an awkward city slicker out of his element, but gradually learns to be a hero and not just impersonate one. The script gets a little too jokey, however. Tonto encourages John to wear a mask to impersonate his dead brother, but the disguise only feeds a "What's with the mask?" running joke. A theme about nature being out of balance leads to peculiar sight gags involving vicious rabbits and a horse that seems to defy gravity.

The Lone Ranger's levity clashes with its gritty tangents. A stopover at a bordello run by a one-legged madam (Helena Bonham Carter) resembles outtakes from a Tim Burton movie. Butch reveals such cannibalistic craving for human flesh that Tonto believes him to be an evil spirit. The film alludes to off-camera massacres, Tonto's tragic childhood backstory, and a scathing critique of American corruption, personified by Tom Wilkinson's evil railroad magnate — yet also wants to be a zany cowboy romp.

Verbinski cranks up Rossini's "The William Tell Overture" for the final set piece. The music's driving rhythms almost carry The Lone Ranger's last act, but the interplay of trains, horses, seesawing ladders, silver bullets, a damsel in distress, and an imperiled boy becomes overly complicated and wearisome. While the film uses The Lone Ranger's theme music, no one asks the signature question: "Who was that masked man?" Despite Depp and Hammer's interplay, I'm not sure anyone figured out the identity of this Lone Ranger.