Please remember, if you would, the primal Lone Ranger joke. Whether it first appeared there is irrelevant; it seemed to smack perfectly, though, of Mad magazine in the 1950s.

The Lone Ranger and his faithful companion Tonto are surrounded by a band of hostile, whooping indians (the expression “Native American” hadn’t yet become common currency). The Lone Ranger looks at Tonto and says, “We’re in deep trouble here. What are we going to do?”

To which Tonto answers “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”

Johnny Depp would be the perfect Tonto in any re-enactment of that ancient joke. You could picture the wild, ironic twinkle in his eyes as the deepest truth about his relationship with the noble masked man came out.

That’s a bit like what I expected Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” to be and why I looked forward so much to the idea of Depp as Tonto.

Tonto – who was born from the pop genius of Fran Striker, radio and pulp writer from Buffalo – is not a realistic representative of Native American history or culture any more than Rochester on “The Jack Benny Show” was anything other than a sarcastic black caricature invented to make the star comedian seem even funnier. Tonto was a fiction, just like wisecracking put-down artist Rochester (played lovably by gravel-voiced Eddie Anderson).

Neither, for that matter, are slave Jim on that raft with Huckleberry Finn and Queequeeg in bed with Ishmael in “Moby Dick” anything other than fictions.

We in Buffalo not only know that, we take immense pride in the fact that the most brilliant original commentary on white America’s primal need for stories pairing up white men and faithful minority companions was written by Leslie Fiedler, the critic and scholar who lived here and taught at the University at Buffalo for more than 40 years.

“The Lone Ranger” presents a slightly different Lone Ranger/Tonto joke, but it’s related to the archetypal one we all know. In Verbinski’s movie, the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) is a righteous buffoon, whose unyielding virtue is invariably the comic idiocy of a Western tenderfoot doofus. He’s so clueless that when pressed to express his religion in a railroad car full of devout Presbyterians, he shoves his copy of John Locke’s Treatises into people’s faces. Think of Jimmy Stewart at the beginning of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” magnified by 10 for comedy’s sake.

When the Lone Ranger asks Tonto what Kemosabe means, Tonto answers ruefully “wrong brother.” When Lone is unconscious, Tonto shakes his head and calls him a “half-wit,” which, of course, he is in his compulsive doofus righteousness. In the 21st century, Hollywood has tragically convinced us that virtue – especially in excess – is a joke.

So Johnny/Tonto spends the movie playing Sancho Panza to Lone’s nobility-crazed Don Quixote, as he rides through the West just asking for horse-dung stains on his immaculate white Stetson (which our pal Lone doesn’t even know how to crease properly until Tonto does it for him toward the end of the film).

It’s not a great joke – certainly not one to maintain hilarity for a two and a half hour movie – but it’s a decent and jolly and watchable one. It is, of course, white American culture that is demeaned and mocked while Tonto, who keeps on trying to feed the dead bird on top of his head, is a fount of pseudo-native American spirituality which may or may not be real but makes him an awfully droll joke on the Locke-wielding stick in the mud he’s riding with.

Tonto, in other words, is not-so-secretly in charge. He likes the Lone Ranger because Silver seems to. Lone, after all, seems to be able to walk through death and danger and come out fine, just fine. Hence, the mask – to convince people he’s already dead and scare their compliance.

Tonto and his companion masked man keep on saving each other throughout the movie. And getting each other into more trouble. Usually it’s interesting and amusing enough but sometimes it really isn’t.

Hey, it’s a plan for a Lone Ranger movie, you know? I don’t know how happy it’s going to make anyone who ever actually believed in the Lone Ranger’s white-hatted virtue, but there you have it.

No one who knows movies at all goes to Verbinski spectaculars expecting anything other than giant, elaborate messes – too many writers given to too much arbitrary incident tied together with baling wire, etc.

And an overlong mess “The Lone Ranger” assuredly is – more jolly and twinkly-eyed than actually funny, although there are two or three authentic belly laughs in it.

But, but, but…

Compared to the unconscionable chaos of Verbinski’s last couple of “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “The Lone Ranger” has some narrative drive to it and a palatable revisionist, if primitive, point about white American expansionism – and its accompanying railroad – being the culprit in quasi-genocidal slaughter of the country’s first inhabitants.

There is, I must admit, an all-too-harrowing moment when Tonto seems completely unconcerned when U.S. Cavalry soldiers and their Gatling guns are mowing down Tonto’s fellow Comanches for the second time in his life (the first time explains Tonto’s origin story in a most un-Striker-type way).

The baddest of the bad guys is Butch Cavendish, played by Cheektowaga’s William Fichtner as a plug-ugly who likes to devour the bloody inner organs of his murder victims, which include the Lone Ranger’s smarter and more capable brother. As with many other scenes in this movie, it’s a wee bit harsh for the littlest audience members and earns the movie’s PG-13 rating.

For all the improvisational joking and incoherent episodic narrative, I’m sympathetic to this movie mostly because of one thing: amid all the joshery, Verbinski is clearly head over heels in love with the work of a director I love just as much: Ford.

Almost the entire first third of the movie takes place in the location that Ford immortalized in film after film – Utah’s Monument Valley, subsequently used by countless moviemakers. Verbinski doesn’t use it sparingly as Ford did, he uses it whole hog here as if he’s never going to see the place again, perhaps even inventing CGI rocks to make it seem even more like itself. It’s endearing excess.

And when, before one Comanche attack on a household, he tries as best he can to duplicate a similar scene in Ford’s “The Searchers.” You’re watching a Disney prodigy doing his academic best to imitate a great film master and genius. It’s awfully hard to hate the prodigy.

Here then is Verbinski, the successfully clumsy Disney franchise maker telling us – whether he knows it or not – “I’ll never be able to make movies a tenth as good as that, but I love them so much that I spent so much time and moneymaking this one. Yeah, I know it’s a silly jokey approach to childhood hero-worship but you’ll have far worse times in movie theaters this summer. And maybe, when it’s over, you’ll understand why, even in the year 2013, so many of us still love Westerns so.”


the lone ranger

3 star

Starring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson

Director: Gore Verbinski

Running time: 149 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some suggestive material.

The Lowdown: Jokey revisionist origin story of the heroic masked man and his faithful companion Tonto.