Hindsight, as it turns out, isn't necessarily 20/20. With exactly ten years now having passed since Pirates of the Caribbean was released, there are now an awful lot of people keen to tell you it was rubbish, despite the largely warm critical reception it received at the time. They're wrong, of course: the first Pirates was a joyous, off-kilter swashbuckler that earned every ounce of its unexpected hype, and Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow was at this stage a truly brilliant creation.
What killed the Pirates franchise, and by extension killed Jack Sparrow, was backstory. Where the first film was gloriously context-free, establishing its scrappy seafaring world with bold, unfussy strokes, the later films became bogged down in energy-sapping cod mythology. So when The Lone Ranger – which reunites Depp, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer – devotes much of its exposition-heavy second act to the origins of Depp's Native American spirit warrior Tonto, you know you're in trouble.
That being said, the film has as much in common with Verbinski's punchy, self-aware animation Rango as it does with the interminable latter Pirates chapters. There's a lot to enjoy here, but trying to disentangle it from the padding is half the battle. Armie Hammer is charismatic enough in the curiously un-heroic role of lawyer-turned-vigilante John Reid, who reluctantly joins forces with Tonto in a vengeance mission after surviving his own murder. But a clunky flash-forward framing device makes it clear that this is Depp's film, as does the pair's dynamic – Reid spends far more of the film earning the "wet behind the ears" label Tonto gives them than not.
But despite the emphasis on backstory, he's too inscrutable to work as a true protagonist, and so the Hammer-Depp dynamic destabilizes the film where it ought to be its anchor. Tom Wilkinson offers strong support as corrupt railroad tycoon Latham Cole, who's among the film's most convincing characters, but William Fichtner is wasted as the animalistic Butch Cavendish and poor Ruth Wilson is relegated to a textbook damsel role.
There's a chaotic quality to The Lone Ranger that works in some instances better than others – in certain scenes the sound mixing feels strangely misjudged, with punchlines almost drowned out by score and incidental noise. The film is baggy, laboured and overly ponderous in exactly the ways you expect. There are whole sequences that simply should not have been filmed, at least one entire subplot – between Fichtner and Helena Bonham Carter's brothel owner Red – that needed cutting, and dialogue that feels like it's awaiting a rewrite.
But there is something fascinating and even vaguely audacious about The Lone Ranger, with its bipolar blend of nostalgic sorrow and glib action, its soulful scripting, its stubbornly awkward characters. It's among the most captivating failures you will see this year.