'The Lone Ranger" lasts far too long, but that does not become evident until it ends.
That's because the movie, opening today, hums for much of its length with a sense of anticipation sometimes slight but always there.
You ride along with inconsistencies because "Ranger" is building toward a final showdown. When that showdown disappoints, you feel every minute of the film's 2 1/2-hour length.
Without giving away details, the movie's overly busy and too obviously computer-enhanced climax takes the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and his crime-fighting partner, Tonto (Johnny Depp), out of character. It also goes too far in merging humor and violence, after the film already strained its PG-13 rating by suggesting a gruesome act. (This film is not for young children.)
In other words, "The Lone Ranger" reveals itself at this point to be a Depp-Gore Verbinski-Jerry Bruck- heimer movie in convolution as well as pedigree. The actor, director and producer behind "Lone Ranger" made the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, which delighted at moments but often went over the top or all over the place.
But there are worse things than a movie that engages for two hours, as "The Lone Ranger" does, through lovely cinematography of plains and sky (the film's main setting is Texas, but it was shot mostly in New Mexico) and nicely old-fashioned action scenes like one set on a moving train. This scene probably incorporated computer-generated effects, yet it plays organically.
Most of all, this origin story showing how attorney John Reid became the Lone Ranger holds interest because of the nice rapport between Hammer ("The Social Network") and Depp.
"The Lone Ranger" boldly goes where the 1940s and '50s TV series with Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels did not, by casting a white man as Tonto (though Depp has said he has American Indian ancestry). This "Ranger" also deepens the character considerably.
Here, Tonto, a Comanche, speaks haltingly at times but not in broken English. He's a full partner to the Lone Ranger instead of a sidekick. He's often the masked man's mentor, which makes sense, since Depp is 50 and Hammer 26.
Tonto and the Lone Ranger spend a lot of time alone together, searching for crooks and killers. This allows for plenty of comic exchanges between Depp and Hammer.
Wiser and more resourceful than his earnest, excitable partner, Tonto teases Reid who likes to brag that he "boxed in law school" about his green-ness in battling bad guys.
Whereas Silverheels and Clayton Moore from the TV series were stoic, Depp's and Hammer's faces always expose their characters' vulnerability. They resemble their TV predecessors, though, in that they would not hurt anyone unless provoked.
Depp's Tonto ultimately is less representative of a specific ethnic or cultural group than of the gentle, highly sympathetic eccentrics Depp always plays. Tonto is a loner until partnering with Reid, and he brings his own demons and motivations to their quest for justice.
Tonto comes across an apparently dead Reid on the frontier, after a gang led by outlaw Butch Cavendish (a creepy bordering on monstrous William Fichtner) ambushes a group of Texas Rangers that includes Reid and his brother, Capt. Dan Reid (James Badge Dale).
John Reid, who does not believe in guns and only recently had been deputized by his brother, is the attack's lone survivor. (The attack comes with a brutal postscript that's not visually graphic but is hinted at so strongly that it will turn stomachs.)
When Tonto discovers Reid still is alive, he believes him to be a "spirit walker," or someone who returned from the dead and cannot be killed in battle. He fashions a mask for Reid to hide his identity from Cavendish's gang while seeking justice.
The sight of a masked 6-foot-5 man in a huge white hat traveling beside a man with a white-painted face and a dead crow atop his head does not cause the fuss you might expect in the frontier towns the Lone Ranger and Tonto enter. Perhaps that's because director Verbinski's Old West is full of incongruous sights.
Tom Wilkinson brings little energy and a Halloween-store-quality beard to the role of a railroad executive with an eye for Dan Reid's widow (Ruth Wilson), who is also John's former flame. Yet Wilkinson's beard never seems as out of place as Hammer's blindingly white 21st-century teeth.
The Hammer-Depp chemistry withstands such distractions and even the movie's sometimes uneasy mix of violence and comedy. That is, until the final act, when all the movie's tone problems, previously masked by the duo's camaraderie, come into sharp focus.
THE LONE RANGER
Two 1/2 stars
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Ruth Wilson, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Gore Verbinski
PG-13 (sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.