A young boy, Will, (Mason Cook) cuts his way through a busy carnival which overlooks the still under-construction Golden Gate Bridge. He bypasses carnival barkers and concession stands before arriving at a tent dedicated o the wild west. He pays for entry and goes in. Inside, Will sees stuffed buffaloes, cowboy mannequins, and lastly a wax sculpture of an old Indian. As he approaches the figure, the Indian's eyes move. The very old, and deranged Indian introduces himself as Tonto (Johnny Depp). Will immediately recognizes the name as he is a huge Lone Ranger fan. He's even come to the carnival in his Lone Ranger costume. He asks Tonto how he came to be a mannequin in a traveling circus. Tonto begins the story.
A much younger Tonto sits astride his horse on a bluff high above the desert. His masked accomplice, The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer), gallops up along-side him and the two ride into town. They storm the small town's bank, order all of its occupants to put their hands in the air and they rob the place. Back in 1930's San Francisco Will doesn't believe what he's hearing. The Lone Ranger wasn't a bank-robber, and besides, that can't be the beginning of the story.
Tonto takes us back well before the bank robbery, when he sat shackled, in a train car next to the notorious, hair-lipped, cannibal outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Cavendish is due to be executed at the next stop on the line, and the federal marshals accompanying them both are there to ensure it. A few cars back the young, college-educated district attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer, again) sits in a train car full of protestant missionaries, singing church hymns. When asked if he's a God-fearing man, John retorts that he is a law-fearing man. Back in the prisoners' car, Tonto watches as Butch slowly peels a wooden plank out of the train car's floor, revealing a hidden compartment and a revolver within it. He pockets the revolver, when the officers' backs are turned, and asks them both if he can get up to use the bathroom. They unchain him and lead him to a chamber pot in the corner of the car. With Butch's back turned, Tonto gestures to the lawmen: "Butch has a gun". It's too late. Butch shoots and kills them both.
At the destination train station, a quintet of Texas Rangers, headed-up by John's brother Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) wait for Butch. Elsewhere Dan's wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and son Danny (Bryant Prince) peruse the town's commercial stalls. The town's wealthiest occupant, railroad magnate Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) happens upon the pair of them and flirts with Rebecca. She doesn't return the sentiment.
Butch's gang of outlaws appears on the horizon and catches up with the train. They board the train, rob its occupants, and kill the engineers before locking the train at full speed. John, overhearing gunshots and footsteps above, gets out of his seat to investigate. He breaks into the prisoner car where he finds Tonto and Butch about to kill one another. John disarms them both, announces himself as the district attorney, and forces them to surrender. Suddenly the train car's doors slide open, revealing Butch's gang waiting for him. They chain-up Tonto and John, free Butch and take off while the train careens past the train station at full speed. Dan and his posse saddle up and head after the train. On-board Tonto manages to separate his chains from the train car, and upon realizing that he and John are chained together, takes John with him to the front of the train. Along the way they take out a pair of Butch's gang members. They get to the steam engine, where they find Dan, and attempt to stop the train. They realize that the train can't be stopped, and separate the passenger cars from the steam engine. The steam engine, alone, derails at the end of the track, nearly killing Tonto and John in the process. Having been unchained during the crash, Tonto begins to walk away, only to be stopped by John, who latches himself around Tonto's leg. Dan catches them both, and since Tonto was in the prison car, he's assumed to be a criminal, arrested and taken to the town jail.
John and Dan's next mission is to track down and arrest Butch. Dan is fine with finding him and killing him on the spot, but John insists that Butch must be captured alive and tried in a court of law. Dan kisses Rebecca, who appears to have a crush on John, deputizes his brother, says goodbye to Danny and takes off after Butch, with John and 6 other Texas Rangers. Along the way they pass a noble all-white horse standing on a bluff, overlooking the valley. Dan explains to John that the Comanche Indians theorize that the white horse is a spirit animal, able to cross over from the living world to the dead one. John asks where Dan learned about native customs, and Dan reveals that he's spent the last several years working with the Comanche Indians, and has taken a shining to their culture. He even wears their jewelry. The posse loses track of Butch's trail at a small canyon, and with no other choice, gallops into it. One of the 8 Rangers, Collins (Leon Rippy), disappears and without warning the remaining 7 are ambushed by gunfire from all sides. Dan's men are shot down one-by-one, until just John and Dan are left. A bullet rips through John's horse, killing it. It collapses to the ground, landing on John's leg. Dan circles around to save John, is about to jump from his horse but is shot multiple times. John frees himself from the horse and runs over to Dan, but is blasted in the chest with a sniper's bullet. John falls to the ground and his eyes shut. Butch and his gang reveal themselves congregate around Dan and John's bodies. Dan, still holding on to life, swears at Butch. Butch, in turn, takes a knife, cuts-out Dan's heart and eats it in front of him. John, drifting in-and-out of consciousness watches in horror before passing out. Butch's men are disgusted by what they've just witnessed, but they're still willing to take orders from their leader. Butch orders them all to move out, and escape back to their hideout.
High above the canyon, Tonto, who had escaped from his prison cell, takes in the result of the massacre. He quietly sneaks down to the canyon floor and gathers the seven bodies. He digs graves for each of the seven, including John, and as he roots through their pockets for valuables, John awakens. Tonto smacks John in the forehead with a rock, knocking him out and since John did no favors for Tonto on the train, he chooses to pretend that John is dead. As Tonto buries the other Rangers, the white horse -- the spirit animal from earlier -- trots over to John's grave and stands over it. Tonto instantly recognizes this as a sign from the great beyond -- a sign that John is a great warrior meant to live another day. Tonto, insisting that Dan is the greater warrior, attempts to dissuade the horse from picking John, but eventually gives up and agrees to take John's body. Tonto slings John over the back of the white horse and the two men & horse head out of the canyon. As John sleeps, Tonto melts down the silver Texas Ranger badges of his passed brethren and creates a silver bullet. He paints John's face, steals his boots, and sets him on a wooden platform high above the valley floor. John awakes and nearly steps off of the platform. He carefully makes his way off the platform, and finds Tonto wearing his boots. Tonto explains that powerful forces beyond them both have chosen John to be a spirit walker -- a man who cannot be killed in battle. He explains that Butch Cavendish is a wendigo -- a man possessed by a demon with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Tonto had been tracking Butch for a long time, and managed to smuggle himself onto the train, and was about to kill him when John intervened. John, ever-insistent that criminals should be tried in court, convinces Tonto that Butch must pay for his crimes, but only in front of a judge. Tonto agrees but argues that John has an ability which sets him apart from other men -- he's a dead man. Tonto fashions a leather mask out of Dan's vest; it's eyeholes created by a pair of bullets. He tells John to wear the mask and become a symbol that Butch's men will fear. The pair mount the white horse and ride into town.
They come to "Red's": a brothel owned and operated by Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter). They discover that Red is a one-time ballerina who lost her right leg to the cannibal Butch Cavendish. Red's new right leg is an ivory prosthetic, with a rifle hidden inside. As they make their way to Red's office, a lawman notices that Tonto, an Indian, is in a club which doesn't allow Indians. He runs to get backup. Red tells them that Butch's men were at her brothel recently and paid for their visit with a giant silver nugget. The nugget is worthless, locally, but if she could get it to San Francisco, she could probably get a nice paycheck in return. Their conversation is cut short by gunfire within the club. The lawman has returned with a mob of angry men, all intent upon killing Tonto. Tonto and John (in his mask) escape the mob and take off. John asks why they wanted to kill Tonto and Tonto explains that the white man is angry at the Comanche Indian tribe because the Comanches have been burning and pillaging white settlements in recent weeks. John, realizing that Rebecca and Danny live in the outskirts, heads-out to save them.
At that moment Rebecca and Danny are at their home in the desert, doing chores. An eerie silence settles across the countryside. Within seconds flaming arrows light the house on fire. They peer-out through the windows, and watch as men in headdresses and face paint kill Rebecca's servants. John and Tonto arrive to find the homestead engulfed in flame and smoke. They walk around the remains of the house and are relieved to see that Rebecca and Danny are not among the dead. They hear a woman's screaming in the barn. They hurry inside and find one of Butch's men, from the train, attempting to disrobe Rebecca's maid. They realize that Butch has been behind the apparent Comanche raids over the last few weeks. Butch's men escape outside and set the barn on fire, with Tonto and John inside. The entire barn is consumed by fire and with no obvious means of exit, John and Tonto are ready to die, when they hear hooves clicking on the barn roof. They look up, through the skylight, and see the white horse, on the roof with a rope in its mouth. The horse pulls them out of the fire, and with them on its back, leaps from the roof and escapes into the night, killing two of Butch's men. They now believe that the masked man, a lone ranger, is the ghost of Dan Reid. Butch's only surviving man escapes back to Butch's hideout and conveys this information to him. Rebecca and Danny are there, along with the traitorous Collins, and Butch. Butch, now fearing that Dan's ghost is after him because of Rebecca and Danny, orders Collins to take the hostages out of the camp and shoot them. Collins marches them out of the camp, and is about to shoot them when he orders them to run. He fires his gun into the air three times and is shot dead by mystery man.
Tonto and John, who are looking for Butch's hideout, steal one of Butch's horses and follow it into Indian country, with the understanding that the horse will know its way home. They follow it for hours until the horse stops in its tracks and falls over, dead. John and Tonto, uncertain as to what killed it -- exhaustion probably -- run to its body and find, buried beneath it, a train track. There can't be a train line running through Indian country; it would violate the treaty that the Comanches have had with the US government. Tonto and John, now without a lead to Butch's hideout bicker. A feathered-arrow comes soaring out of nowhere and lands in John's chest. He screams and passes out. John awakens in a tepee, as Tonto painfully pulls the arrow out of him. The Comanches shot John. The news of the fake Comanche raids on white settlements has angered both sides and they too are preparing to go to war. John, to the best of his ability, attempts to explain the true order of events to the Comanche elders, according to Tonto's customs, but his pleas fall on deaf ears. They explain to John that Tonto is no longer a true Comanche. As a young child Tonto lived in a Comanche settlement similar to their own. One day, while hunting, Tonto came across a pair of young dehydrated white settlers. Tonto slung the two over the back of his horse and led them to his camp and treated them back to health. When they were able, Tonto showed them the nearby Comanche river which contained abundant amounts of silver. In exchange for showing them the silver, Tonto was given a cheap, Sears and Roebuck pocket watch. The men filled their bags with silver nuggets and, not wanting anyone else to know the location of the silver, killed Tonto's tribe, leaving Tonto as the sole survivor. They even killed Tonto's crow. On that day Tonto went crazy. He made it his mission to find the men who killed his people, and constantly wears the crow and pocket-watch as a reminder of their betrayal. The Comanches are ready to go to war, and John and Tonto's story isn't enough to convince them not to. The Comanches bury John and Tonto in dirt, up to their necks, and leave them to bake in the sun while they go to war. The pair of them are soon attacked by scorpions, but the white horse arrives, eats the scorpions and saves them both. John and Tonto are now convinced that Butch is after the silver deposit Tonto spoke of. Tonto shows John the way and the two eventually find themselves at an industrial silver mine, being supervised by Butch and staffed by hundreds of Chinese immigrants. Many of the men are afraid to go into the mine, citing spooky native spirits who live inside. Butch kills the fearful Chinese workers and sends in a few of his gang members to investigate their claims. Inside the mine, the men are knocked-out cold by John and Tonto and push-out an apparently mine-car in response. Butch and his men open fire on the mine car, with enough bullets to kill anyone who might be hiding inside. They discover, hidden in the car, a lit bushel of dynamite. The cart explodes, wounding Butch, and killing his men. John and Tonto step out of the mine, and surround Butch. Butch, at first, believes that John is the ghost of his brother, Dan, but soon realizes that "the Lone Ranger", the ghost, the spirit is just the lawyer from town. He laughs. Tonto asks John to kill Butch, and forget his moral obligations. John refuses and finding no way to calm Tonto down, knocks him out with a shovel. He ties Butch's hands to the back of his horse and leads him, as a prisoner, back to town, to face justice.
Rebecca awakens on a train car, Latham Cole's train car. It was Cole who saved them both from Butch's gang and shot Collins. Cole ushers her into the dining car, where dinner awaits them both. Rebecca is woozy, and uneasy about the entire situation. She has always been creeped out by Cole's come-ons, and his fatherly advances toward Danny. Military Captain Jay Fuller (Barry Pepper) knocks on the train car door. He, and his cavalry unit, has been brought in to repel the Comanche forces. There's a commotion outside; John arrives, dragging an exhausted Butch behind his horse. Rebecca and Danny, having heard rumors that it might be Dan, wish to run out and meet him. Cole tells one of his men to take the two into the pantry and hold them at gunpoint. Outside Cole takes custody of Butch and gives him a few good kicks and punches for the cheering crowd. He welcomes John into the dining room and tells his men to put Butch in another car. John, who hasn't eaten in days, digs into dinner and notices peculiar items around the table: Rebecca's neckerchief, a child's toy. He realizes that Rebecca and Danny are on the train, and that Cole is their captor. More-so, he figures out that Cole and Butch were the brothers from Tonto's tale. They were the ones who killed Tonto's tribe for their silver, and now they're back to pillage the land and get away scott-free. Seconds later Cole draws a gun on John, but John is too fast. John holds Cole at gunpoint and walks him into the neighboring car where he finds Butch relaxing, without constraint. Within moments, guns are drawn by John, Cole, and Danny, who had wrestled a gun away from Cole's man. Cole attempts to convince Danny that John killed Danny's father, but his lie is transparent. Captain Fuller walks into the commotion, and is convinced by Cole that John is the bad guy. John is arrested and taken to another car. Cole takes his train back to the silver mine. There Butch shows him, and Captain Fuller, three massive covered train cars over-flowing with silver. John is blind-folded and placed in front of a firing squad, at the command of Captain Fuller. Butch's men order all the migrant workers out of the mine, so the train can pass through. A single migrant saunters out of the mine, holding a cage with a dead bird inside. "GAS!" shouts the train conductor. He reverses the train, and indirectly pushes a train car between John and firing squad, saving him. The old man, with the dead bird was Tonto. He saves John, just as a volley of arrows comes streaking in from the mountain-side. The real Comanches are attacking the miners. Fuller is ordered to retaliate, and orders the cavalry to mow-down the horde of Comanches with a machine gun. Hundreds are killed in the chaos, but John and Tonto manage to escape into the mine. Butch chases after them, and throws lit dynamite after them. John and Tonto narrowly avoid getting exploded by the TNT by diving into an underground lake. They wash-up on the shore. Cole orders Butch and his men to load his train with the silver cars. The east and west train tracks will soon be united at Promontory Point, and as soon as they are, he'll be able to take the silver to San Francisco, and sell it for a massive fortune.
Back in 1930's San Francisco, Tonto tells Will why they'd robbed the bank in the first place. Tonto and the Lone Ranger storm the bank, enter the vault and steal Cole's private stash of TNT and nitroglycerin. They take the stolen explosives, and use them to destroy the bridge a few miles from Promontory Point. They return to Promontory Point where a celebration is being held for the uniting of the two tracks. Cole watches, enviously, as the railroad's President and CEO Habberman (Stephen Root) gets up on stage and cuts the ribbon. The crowd cheers, the band plays, and Cole invites the railroad board members to have a private meeting on his train. Inside, Cole initiates a hostile takeover of the railroad. He tells them all that he's about to take a train with $65,000,000 worth of silver to San Francisco, and using that money he'll buy the railroad, which will enable him to control the country. Habberman laughs-off Cole's plans, calling them ludicrous, and is shot in the leg for his troubles. Just then, Tonto sneaks onto the other train, commandeers the train car and puts it in reverse, in the direction of the destroyed bridge. Fuller orders his men to fire upon Tonto with the machine gun, but Tonto is saved by John who appears, on horseback, riding over the tops of buildings. Cole orders Butch and his men to start the second train and to go after Tonto.
Cole, Butch, & Fuller chase after Tonto with John riding his horse across the top of the train. Rebecca and Danny are held captive inside the second train. Along the way Tonto manages to hit a switch-track, forcing the second train onto a separate route. Hundreds of gunshots are traded between the two trains as the occupants regularly jump between them. Multiple cars are uncoupled from their engines, and ultimately Butch and Fuller end up on two separate cars which violently collide with one another, killing them both. Cole, having moved to the train being piloted by Tonto, prepares to kill him when John, using his melted-down silver bullet shoots the gun out of Cole's hand. Tonto escapes the train, now being piloted by Cole, who has his three giant cars full of silver behind him. Cole, convinced that he has a clean escape to San Francisco comes to the destroyed bridge. Cole's train, along with the silver, flies off the tracks, into the water below. Cole is subsequently buried by his silver, and dies in watery grave. The train, which Tonto and John were riding, along with dozens of innocent bystanders, barely comes to a stop before plunging off the destroyed bridge.
Back at Promontory Point, Habberman and the crowd applauds for John for saving the day and killing Cole. Habberman tries to convince John to give up his outlaw ways, lose the mask, and reveal his true identity to the people. John refuses and takes off on his horse. He eventually meets Tonto in a manner similar to where they were at the start of the film: sitting on a bluff, overlooking the valley beneath them. In a moment of levity, John tells Tonto that he's decided to name the white horse "Silver", which is appropriate considering the adventure they just had. Tonto likes the name but tells John, very seriously, to never repeat the phrase "Hi-Ho! Silver Away!" The two take off on another adventure.
We return to 1930's San Francisco where the old Tonto is preparing to go home after a long day's work. He puts on a jacket and a bowler hat, and trades the kid a silver bullet before heading off into the night. The credits roll atop the old Tonto as he slowly walks through a western landscape.
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