Tonto takes centre-stage

To watch a snippet of The Lone Ranger is to empathise with the stoic looks of concern its star, Johnny Depp, deadpans throughout the action film.

A white man playing Tonto, one of the most famous American Indian stereotypes of all time, might work. Then again, trouble might be coming.

In director Gore Verbinski’s remake of the popular 1950s Western television series, Depp speaks in broken English, chants prayers, and wears feathers, face paint and – for some reason – a stuffed crow headdress.

But he also loses the subservience that helped make the original Tonto, played by a Canadian Mohawk, such a problematic sidekick to the masked hero.

The Disney remake has Tonto in the role of coach to John Reid, the idealistic law school graduate who finds himself out of his depth when he returns to his hometown and eventually becomes the Lone Ranger.

Verbinski framed the film as a buddy picture with a zany Western edge Wednesday during a teaser screening at the movie theater convention CinemaCon in Las Vegas.

“The movie is an origin story,” he said before showing about 20 minutes of material. “You’ll get a sense about the delicate partnership that’s arranged between these two guys, and their wildly diverse sense of justice.”

Armie Hammer, who plays the square-jawed ranger, made a brief appearance with Depp, who was in full movie-star mode, sporting a cowboy hat, four gold necklaces, expensively ripped jeans and a bandanna hanging to his knees.

“Armie is very tall. Which means that we’re not short,” Depp told the industry crowd.

“Anything to add to that” Verbinski asked.

“No,” Depp responded, hoisting his microphone to the ceiling like a rock star and then strutting back off stage.

He might have been saving his voice for a fan question-and-answer session scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at a nearby Las Vegas theatre.

At that appearance, the 49-year-old actor said he wanted his portrayal of Tonto “to give as much back to the human beings, the Native Americans as possible; to show that they have a fantastic sense of humor, very dry.”

“The goal was to try to, in my own small way, right the many wrongs that have been done to those people and to show Tonto not only as a proud warrior but also as a man outside, just a bit outside,” Depp said.

Verbinski also directed Pirates of the Caribbean films, and in The Lone Ranger, Depp appears to be reprising some elements of his flamboyant Jack Sparrow character, including what could be the same head scarf.

Depp is not quite donning “red face,” as he wears a mask of white and black paint through the film. That heavy eye makeup sets off the whites of his eyes, which he widens to comic effect when confronted with handcuffs, rifles and hurtling trains.

The film, set for release July 4, is Hollywood’s first attempt to modernise the Lone Ranger franchise, which has gathered dust for several generations.

Today’s viewers might not feel a shiver of recognition when John Reid’s brother tosses him a Texas Ranger pin, or when Tonto first calls him “kemosabe.”

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And that might be a good thing.

– AP