Klinton Spilsbury is not actually that bad; the adult version of his character barely has to emote for the story as presented to work. And, the dubbing over of his voice was done quite well; even knowing it was dubbed, I could only really tell in a few spots. Michael Horse is fine, though his characters role is both expanding upon older versions and reducing it, so it is hard to gauge just how much he matters to the plot, if not the legend. Christopher Lloyd is good as Cavendish. Jason Robards is fantastic as Grant (though I'll get back to Grant below). Everyone else is so minimally affective to the story that their performances don't matter much as measure of the film.
The structure is fine as long as you don't have expectations of Lone Ranger action. An origin story, if it is going to be an origin story, should take some time, set up its pieces.
The stuntwork is awesome, especially for 1981. As is the pyrotechnics.
Merle Haggard's "balladeer" narration is so ridiculous as to circle right around to being awesome. I mean, if you're going to tell a "legend" this narration makes sense. Some of the rhymes seem a little forced, but overall, they work, and they set a better legendy tone than the hazy imagery does.
And, you must know that a but is coming. That is how this works. Because The Legend of the Lone Ranger is a deeply flawed film despite parts of it being quite good.
The but comes in two related details.
1) Amy Striker (Juanin Clay) should be more important to the plot. We meet her before we meet the adult John Reid. Their future romance is implicit immediately—yesterday I compared her stumble in the stagecoach to a meet-cute out of a romantic comedy.
(Sidenote: seeing "Chinese Stage Passenger" (as he's credited on IMDb) (Kit Wong) on the stagecoach, and then seeing him throw a knife into the leg of one of the bandits, in 2017 I want this guy to team up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto later, get a more well-rounded war party going. They could also use a demolitions guy, so Lone Ranger and Tonto are free to shoot people. And, in a more modern tone—like last year's The Magnificent Seven's Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), Amy Striker could even turn out to be good at shooting, like her uncle took time from the newspaper business to take her hunting as a girl, so she's the sniper of the group. Or something. Anything but what the short shrift she gets here...)
John meets Amy's uncle right away, John and Amy wander off from the partying crowd to share a kiss. It's all very by-the-book cinematic old west romance. The destruction of the lead's John Reid identity—digging an extra grave, donning a mask—should feel like a bigger tragedy because of the promise of John's romance with Amy. His brief return in the guise of a priest should have more impact. Or, Amy should matter to the latter half of the film. Her life should be on the line in Act Three. John's dispute with Cavendish is personal. But, the opening assault on John's family home suggests something bigger to come; the Lone Ranger is not going to maintain this personal angle on bad men, rather he is going to become a force for justice. As part one of a planned trilogy, this structure could be fine, the irrelevance of Amy would be acceptable because John's relationship with her, even if always in the guise of a priest, could be a recurring element in the larger story; she could be an anchor for him as he is drawn toward violence. A (for 1981) modern retelling of the Lone Ranger story could have dug deeper, show us the transition from revenge plot to proto-superhero plot, and play on more of the tropes of the western film.
Despite it being a stereotypical Hollywood plot device, what Act Three needs is for Amy to be in danger from Cavendish. She needs to be seen talking to the Lone Ranger by one of Cavendish's shadowy supporters. Hell, an easy detail would be to have one of his spies in the church where John pretends to be a priest. Amy is instead a footnote, a lost thread because of...
2) President Grant. He should not be in this film. It's too big, too soon. I compared plot details here to a spy film yesterday, and that still feels apt. A western should never be about saving anything more than a farm, a family, a town. Any buildup to something bigger is the kind of thing you get in a sequel, or a trilogy. And, if trilogies were more of a thing in 1981, the western genre certainly could have used such an injection of energy at the time. The Cold War was big. An actual Hollywood cowboy was president. But the western was dying, being replaced by hyperviolent cops and soldiers.
Imagine a planned (and well-executed) trilogy revitalizing the Lone Ranger for a new generation. We get the origin story in the first film, ending with personal revenge on someone like Collins (David Hayward)—the guy who set up the other Rangers for Cavendish's ambush. Cavendish's role would be set up, but would not really pay off until the second film, when the town of Del Rio is threatened. Here, Amy's role could be buffed up, with her inherited newspaper taking on Cavendish's business and political interests to such a degree that she is in danger of dying like her uncle did.
Only in the third film does Cavendish's plot to form a new Texas Republic come into play. Only in the third film does Grant enter the picture. Cavendish becomes the Emperor to, say, Collin's Darth Vader. The Lone Ranger inspires others to fight back, and by the third film, you earn the inclusion of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok and George Custer (instead of their glorified cameos here). (And, if you're being cute, you might get a cameo of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, any old west celebrity that can fit.) Chinese Stage Passenger might get a name and join in with Lone Ranger and Tonto. Amy would take up a gun as well, because Hollywood, and her newspaper role just wouldn't be big enough in the larger scheme of things.
But, we cannot just play armchair (or is it backseat?) screenwriter. The problem is not that this film (or any film) does not live up to our imaginary scenarios. In point of fact, 5-year-old me maybe needed the single film, instead of a trilogy, because that left more space for my own imagination, more room to play with the action figures—yes, I had Lone Ranger and Silver and Tonto and Scout from this film's line of toys—or play in the yard with a toy gun, or a broken tree branch posing as a gun. It is me today that is more concerned with the film's role as a film, rather than a trigger for a child's imagination; it is me today that is more concerned with the film's role as a trigger for more film, fuel for more westerns. Modernizing the legend a little bit, so that John might be more conflicted over doing violence, so that John's abandoned romance with Amy might be more affective, even links this film into the 80s need for a cinematic rebuilding of masculinity on screen. This film's choice to keep John from actually being a Texas Ranger at the time of that slaughter at Bryant's Gap even buys us into this rebuilding. His brother is more of a man than he is, in Hollywood terms. John only becomes a real man by dying, even if his death is a necessary fiction. But, the film never earns the president-saving, country-saving climax, because the Lone Ranger just isn't big enough for that. The Lone Ranger is a promoter of justice. The best this film can do for that is his saving of Tonto from hanging (which, structurally, is too brief and unrelated to the plot) and his personal revenge on Cavendish. Saving Grant is a cheap escalation. Going with the more stereotypical damsel in distress ending with Amy would have made more sense, even if it would have promoted lame gender roles. (One must wonder, is it better to be found in need of rescue or to be forgotten entirely? In film, anyway. In reality, you are probably better forgotten because at least that doesn't make you needy.)
Grant, however good a character Robards makes him with little screentime, should not be a part of this film. Dan's political views early on feel like something from a very different film. The Comanche Chief's talk about white man's promises, and Tonto's eventual request from Grant also seem like something out of a different film. Which is really this film's problem—and something I would never have noticed as a kid because I was too busy imagining myself the Lone Ranger—it feels like pieces of different films pasted together. John is in a personal story. Tonto and Dan are in a political story that connects only tangentially with John's. And, Cavendish is in some bigger story, a political thriller that doesn't fit with John's much at all. And, then there's Amy, sitting in some old fashioned western (or a modern romantic comedy) that has no place in Act Three and barely has any presence in Act Two.
But, Merle Haggard's balladeer narration nearly holds it all together. It would have held a more personal revenge/justice story together even better.