This Lone Ranger is, in fact, an origin tale, and it doesn't even begin in the Lone Star State. Inventively framed as a flashback, the story starts in, and returns now and then to, San Francisco. It is 1933, and a wide-eyed kid (Mason Cook), wearing a white cowboy hat and a black mask, is exploring the Wild West dioramas in a traveling carnival show. He stops at the window labeled "The Noble Savage" to assess a wizened, stooped figure with a crow on his head. With the magic of a children's fable, the Indian comes alive.
Behind the gobs of old-age makeup and prosthetics is Depp, of course - you can ID the actor by the glint in his eye. He is Tonto, and he gears up to tell the boy about John Reid, a learned lawyer from the East who arrived in Colby, Texas, back in 1869, a copy of John Locke's Two Treatises of Government tucked under his arm.
Several grisly deaths and crooked deals later, Reid - played by the square-jawed Hammer - has had his ideals dashed, and his metamorphosis into the incognito do-gooder is underway. He's got the white horse, the fancy bullets. And he's got Tonto, an oddball Comanche with a dry wit and an even drier layer of paint caked to his face. Depp, who has claimed hereditary connection to American Indians, walks a fine line here - the buffoonery, the broken English - but in the end, his Tonto emerges with dignity, and drollery, intact.
For the most part, Hammer plays straight man to Depp's enigmatic smart aleck, and by the time the last runaway train and exploding bridge and silver-mine shoot-'em-up is done with, their bond is firmly established.
It is folly to ask for economy from an enterprise with a reported $250 million production budget, but The Lone Ranger gets to a point around the 90-minute mark (it continues for an hour more) where it can sometimes feel like The Long Ranger. One too many riotous chases and ricocheting rounds of ammo, although the staging of these sequences - scary stunts, seamless CG, the surreal sight gag of a white steed perched in a tree - cannot be faulted.
As for villainy, take your pick: Tom Wilkinson is all sinister charm as Latham Cole, the railroad magnate with a maniacal plan; William Fichtner is Butch Cavendish, a harelipped, silver-toothed outlaw who eats the hearts of his victims - raw - and Barry Pepper is the cavalry captain carrying out orders, unrepentantly violating the treaties with the Comanche Nation.
And as for romance - never mind the burning bromance going on between our stars - there is the blue-eyed Rebecca Reid (Ruth Wilson), John's sister-in-law. Once her husband is out of the way (see the aforementioned Cavendish), it should be smooth sailing for John and Rebecca.
But then this whole Lone Ranger thing takes off.
And The Lone Ranger, despite its extravagant running time, does take off.
With tips of the 10-gallon chapeau to old Hollywood westerns (the John Ford vistas) and to spaghetti westerns (the Ennio Morricone-like soundtrack twang), Verbinski's opus oater looks beautiful, and plays smart. And yes, they even work kemosabe in there. Hi-yo, Silver! Away!
The Lone Ranger *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Gore Verbinski. With Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, and Ruth Wilson. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 29 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, intense action, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.