The audience laughed hyperactively throughout the trailers for upcoming animated blockbusters. “Do talking-animal movies always have extra-long previews?” my wife asked.
“You can never have too many fart jokes,” I explained.
Then Rango started, with Johnny Depp voicing an actor who is (literally) a chameleon, an ugly, asymmetrical reptile. And everybody, including us, finally shut up.
Yet my mouth didn’t stay closed. First my eyebrows went up. Then my jaw dropped. And that was pretty much my only expression throughout this hallucinatory cartoon Western: few chuckles or even smiles, and certainly no dabbing at the eyes, just aesthetic astonishment. As a showcase of the cross-firing neurons in director Gore Verbinski’s brain, the densely contrived Rango is staggering.
On the macro level, Rango is a predictable pastiche of virtually every Southwestern desert movie ever made. The bulk of the plot is lifted from Chinatown and the characters are borrowed from Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name spaghetti westerns and Don Knotts’s The Shakiest Gun in the West. Yet on the micro level, Rango is alarmingly inventive, with something unanticipated thrown at you every 15 seconds.
Rango opens with the self-absorbed lizard putting on a play for himself on an eerily blank stage which turns out to be a terrarium in the backseat of a car making the Hollywood-Vegas run.
When the driver swerves sickeningly to avoid an armadillo, the chameleon flies out the window and lands splat on the windshield of the Great Red Shark convertible driven by Raoul Duke, Doctor of Journalism (whom Depp played in the 1998 film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Gesturing at the screaming reptile, Duke notes to his 300-pound Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo, “There’s another one.” At that point, I realized I would never take enough drugs to fully appreciate Rango.
Depp’s lizard then stumbles into the saloon of the Old West town of Dirt. Its talking desert varmints—rats, moles, snakes, tarantulas, and gila monsters—are as grotesque as Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Fear and Loathing. Yet Rango’s CGI craftsmanship is so extraordinary that they are almost beautiful.
Casting Johnny Depp as a shallow thespian chameleon offers surprisingly harsh satire on the versatile actor’s lack of a definable screen personality. Depp can be a startling genius (Ed Wood, Pirates of the Caribbean) or an introverted bore (Public Enemies). Ads saying Johnny Depp is Rango’s voice have sold a lot of tickets, but they merely raise the question: What does Depp’s voice sound like, anyway?
Ten years ago, the first movie review I wrote was of Verbinski’s flop The Mexican, which sent Brad Pitt wandering around in a similar Sergio Leone desert full of Mexican stereotypes. Pitt, I asserted, seemed stuck midway between Tom Cruise’s professionalism and Johnny Depp’s risk-taking.
Two years later, Verbinski and Depp teamed to pull off the oddest billion-dollar ploy in Hollywood history, Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme-park-ride movie starring a buccaneer who channels an effete glam rocker.
When the chameleon is challenged by the ornery locals to disclose his name, he drops “Lars” and borrows “Rango” from a tequila bottle labeled “Hecho en Durango, Mexico” (where The Wild Bunch was made). As in Steve Martin’s ¡Three Amigos!, the ham actor is cajoled by the naïve townspeople into playing the role of real-life sheriff.
OK, another cartoon movie full of pop-culture references sounds as dire as sitting through Shrek 2 again. Yet Rango’s recycling represents a distinctive sensibility.
Within the first half-hour, I surmised that the director was a Southern California punk rocker in the 1980s. Sure enough, Verbinski grew up in La Jolla playing in punk bands. He sold his guitar to buy his first movie camera, then graduated from UCLA film school in 1987.
Rango’s abundance of Mexican themes supports this—strangely, Mexico is a less vivid presence in SoCal’s pop culture today than a generation ago. East LA’s Los Lobos, the finest group to evolve out of the punk era, contributes Rango’s title tune.
The young Verbinski was no doubt floored by UCLA alum Alex Cox’s Repo Man, the 1984 LA punk-rock film. This intricate Emilio Estevez cult movie provided Harry Dean Stanton with his long career’s signature line: “A repo man’s always intense.” (Rango’s credits reveal that the now-84-year-old Stanton voices the mole patriarch.)
Cox’s long slide began when he turned down directing ¡Three Amigos! to make Straight to Hell, a spoof of spaghetti westerns. Since then, a co-writing credit on Fear and Loathing is Cox’s most prominent accomplishment, besides much conspiracy theorizing. Yet consciously or not, Rango stands as a tribute to Cox’s assertion in Repo Man that on top of everything lays an unsettling but fascinating “lattice of coincidence.”
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