What's wrong with "The Lone Ranger"? Just about everything.
Back when the enigmatic lawman and his Indian sidekick rode the black-and-while trails of 1950s television bringing outlaw varmints to justice, grateful folks in dusty Wild West towns asked in awe, "Who was that masked man?"
Now that the masked hero is the centerpiece of a $225-million summer-action epic, the question is, "What were they thinking?"
Even with Johnny Depp reinventing the trusted Tonto as sort of an eccentric zen master of the Old West, complete with black-and-white-striped face paint and a dead bird on his head, this reunion with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinsky and producer Jerry Bruckheimer goes right over the cliff.
In simpler times, when TV was still in its infancy and entertainment was still about telling stories rather than marketing them, the original TV series was thrilling and exciting, inspiring a whole generation to gallop around backyards on imaginary horses, slapping their thighs as they bellowed, "Hi ho, Silver!"
Not knowing whether to celebrate or jeer at this hokey, nave sort of myth making, the new "Lone Ranger" winds up trampling it instead.
In the old days, the cereal commercials came at the end of the show. Now everything's a commercial, the story a flimsy scaffolding to hang the product placement on.
At least they kept the theme song.
After its opening weekend box-office drubbing by "Despicable Me 2," critics and audiences were eager to join the lynch mob, taking aim at all the easy targets.
Analysts have concluded that today's kids aren't familiar with the legend of the masked lawman on his great white horse, Silver, righting wrongs in the sagebrush with silver bullets in his pistol, as Tonto covered his back.
That might have been anticipated in a time when kimosabe sounds like something to order in a sushi bar. But for those of us who actually grew up on the mixed metaphors of early radio and TV cowboy heroes, the problems run deeper.
Longing for the simplicity of "the good old days" overlooks certain basic flaws in that world view. Genteel racism, for openers.
No matter what the Disneyland ride says, it was a white world, after all. Americans were white people. People who weren't white were curiosities at best - but usually weren't portrayed at best.
"The Lone Ranger" struck a blow against that way of thinking, but it was only because Tonto was such a noble savage as opposed to an equal partner in the deal, even if Jay Silverheels gets top billing in the show's archives.
The new "Lone Ranger" tries to make amends by making Tonto the brains of the outfit, turning Armie Hammer into more of a Wild West bimbo in the title role. But still, the film brims with smug, snarky attitude, pitting its buckskin odd couple against forces of "progress" like cavalry officers with Goldielocks hair, and ruthless railroad barons addicted to insatiable greed for silver.
Depp's Tonto does have his moments, reminiscent of "Little Big Man's" basic truth that the Indians were the human beings - the white folks were just plain loco.
Distant echoes from "Dances with Wolves" to "Blazing Saddles" creep in, too. But even Depp's glib hipness can't undo the cynicism at the heart of the project.
Seeing the movie here in Montana, where actual Indian pow-wows crisscross the region during the summer months the way O-bon dances dot the calendar on Maui, didn't help. The film's worst villain, the railroad tycoon clutching at his silver, seemed uncomfortably close to the producers and studio executives clutching at their gold, more than happy to replace innocent childhood fantasies with cheap, glittering store-bought imitations.
"The Lone Ranger" seals its own fate. What more can be said about a movie that climaxes with the biggest train wreck anyone has ever seen?
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.