Johnny Depp's 'Rango': Its top six riffs on classic movies

Rango-Westerners_510.jpg Image Credit: Everett Collection; Kobal Collection; Everett Collection(3)

In Rango, Johnny Depp voices a pet lizard who fancies himself an actor, only to find himself lost in the desert and drawing fire from the hardscrabble local critters with his tough-guy act. The comedy draws on Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and Sam Peckinpah shoot-’em’ups for inspiration, but the film shout-outs don’t stop there.

Director Gore Verbinski, who worked with Depp on the previous three Pirates of the Caribbean movies says Rango is kind of a “film within a film,” packed full of movie references because Rango is such a storytelling buff and sees everything through that lens. For example, when he staggers into the town of Dirt, which is wasting away from a lack of water, suddenly the Chinatown references start popping up.

“We have a character who is literate in the Greeks and Shakespeare, but I think also in Leone, and Peckinpah and in this case Polanski,” says Verbinski. “The whole world is in some way a byproduct of his mind, and all the references are there because we have an actor as a protagonist.”

Here are some of Rango’s coolest movie riffs …

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1. Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West

With his bug eyes, jittery way with a six-shooter and tendency to gulp in the face of danger, the lizard Rango tips his ten-gallon hat to Knotts, who was a meek dentist drafted into gunslinger duty in this 1968 comedy. Knotts made a career out of playing knock-kneed tough guys who are in over their heads. Though there are also allusions to Kermit the Frog in Depp’s voice, much of the physicality is borrowed from Knotts. “He even does that little sniffle, which is classic Don Knotts,” Verbinski says.

2. Clint Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars

When times are tough for Rango, he finds himself wandering the desert, parched and hallucinating. A figure who appears to him for inspiration called The Spirit of the West takes a very familiar poncho-wearing form of the iconic, squint-eyed Man With No Name — who made a household name out of Eastwood in this 1964 film. The spirit guide even has a few faux-Oscars in the back of the golf cart he rides up to the lost lizard hero. “It seemed to fit,” Verbinski says. “Rango’s coming across this character from his head. In his brain he’s asking: What’s my ideal hero? This is his guiding light really.” The filmmaker says they never offered the real Eastwood a chance to voice his own caricature.”No, we wanted to stick within the confines of parody. We called Timothy Olyphant [of TV's Justified] to play the Spirit of the West … Listening to the movie, hearing his voice, I said, ‘Wow, he sounds really familiar.’ [Olyphant] He says he gets that all the time”

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3. John Huston in Chinatown

The tortoise mayor of Dirt, voiced by Ned Beatty, is a nod to Huston’s malevolent tycoon Noah Cross from Chinatown, sharing the same white hat, suspenders and stentorian voice. When Rango asks him what he wants, he even echoes a classic line from the 1974 film. “The future, Mr. Rango! The future!” Chinatown‘s plot involving the manipulation of Los Angeles’ water supply led to the character inspiration. “We knew we were enterting a western genre, and we wanted currency, but not money. So water became currency,” Verbinski says. “The outsider is an aquatic creature in a dry, hydration-less environment, so when we needed a plot, we went Chinatown-light just so we can have it there and tell the main story about The Great Pretender.”

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4. Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Rango’s machine-gun-tailed villain Rattlesnake Jake wears the flat-brim black hat of Van Cleef’s baddie from this 1966 western classic, and even shares a scaly version of his pencil-thin mustache. “We studied some screen grabs from Lee Van Cleef, and there were some where he even looks like a snake, with the angles on his face and piercing eyes,” laughs artist Crash McCreery, Rango‘s creature designer whose past credits include Jurassic Park and the Pirates movies. Verbinski says Bill Nighy’s voice acting also drew on cowboy villains played by Jack Palance. From the classic Shane? “Jack Palance from everything,” Verbinski says.

5. Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou

We don’t see a version of his bumbling Kid Shelleen, but Rango includes a spoof of Marvin’s metallic-nosed villain from that 1965 comedy Western: Tin Strawn. One of the first battles the lizard fights — and wins accidentally — is with a hawk who swoops down to terrorize the critters of Dirt. “If you look closely there’s a metal piece on end of the hawks beak, which is an homage to Cat Ballou, where they had the metal plate over Lee Marvin’s nose,” notes McCreery.

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6. Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

This is a new western of sorts, as opposed to a tale from the old west — though it is just as wild, if not more so. When Rango finds himself launched from the safety of his aquarium during a road-trip, he bounces around the desert highway, gets his head stuck in a smile-face antenna ball, and splats on the windshield of The Great Red Shark convertible driven by two familiar disheveled figures — a wasted Dr. Gonzo in the backseat, and author Hunter S. Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke in the driver’s seat. Depp played Duke in the 1998 surrealist comedy, and was a longtime friend of the late Thompson, recreating his deep staccato voice for this posthumous cameo.

“That came out of a comedy punch-up session early on,” Verbinski said. “Somebody said we shoudl see the red Cadillac drive by. And then someone said, no, no, it shouldn’t just drive by. He should land on the window.” The Thompson caricature’s line hints at the bizarre weekend they are having. “The reaction is not, ‘What the hell is that?’ its ‘Ho, there’s another one!’” Verbinski laughs. “He’s been seeing lizards with smiley faces all day long.”

Follow me on Twitter @Breznican

Comments (48 total) Add your comment
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  • mrgnexus

    I HOWLED when Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo appeared.

    Joy turned to embarrassment, though, when I realized I was the only person cackling like a maniac in the theater.

    Ah well…

    • marla

      It’s too bad you weren’t in my theater because I was laughing too.

    • cuallo

      I’m with you in this one,went with my older son and daughter,we laughted on this scene so hard,other people probably wanted to kick us out of movie theater.

    • Shari

      Me too XD I was completely beside myself, I got so many stares haha!

    • Alissa

      my friend and I were craaaaacking up.

    • emjay

      It was hilarious. Sometimes it’s fun being the only one who gets it. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be the only one laughing like a loon.

  • the Vicster

    Second!!

    • scotty1701

      and?

  • Charles

    This is what I really loved the most about the movie, the constant movie references. (Spoilers), The hawks legs sticking out from the tumbling from the sky water tower (Wizard of Oz). During the scene where the prarie dogs are chasing the wagon it’s a great mash-up of “Apocalypse Now”, the final Death Star trench scene from “Star Wars” and the wild finale of “The Road Warrior”. I’m looking forward to seeing it again on Blu-ray to really watch for more of the little touches and tributes that are scattered throughout the film.

    I was also especially impressed with all the camera angles that recreated iconic (and occasionally cliche) shots and scenes from classic westerns. It’s just a terrific film for classic movie lovers who love to spot the influences and homages.

  • Charles

    Just another tribute, the mines of Moria from “Fellowship of the Ring” during the posse’s journey through the underground. As I said above, it’s just allot of fun. (Not trying to be a spoiler, most of these scenes are already in the trailer).

  • tessa

    That’s f-ing brilliant!!! I HAVE to see this movie!!!

  • JenR

    When the mayor tells him to pick up the badge and gives him the speech about giving people hope, I’m pretty sure that’s “Hang ‘Em High.”

  • rachel

    AWESOME MOVIE!! I’m so glad Rango is NUMBER ONE,and happy for Johnny too,my love ,and I hope the people realize that is a very good movie,go to see it and they love it like me

  • rita

    At the beginning, Rango makes a reference to being one of the great lovers of all time — Don Juan DeMarco!

  • JessBaylor

    How about the resident of Dirt who looks like Strother Martin’s character Bowen, Jason Robards’ partner who leaves him to die of thirst in the desert in “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”

  • Zac Acrey

    The music in most of the chase scenes is also very similar to that in the chases from Raising Arizona:)

  • Shari

    Not sure if it was intentional or not, but the “This hawk is dead” line reminded me of Monty Python.

  • Patman

    When the decide not to bury the banker, one of the characters says, “crows gotta eat too” reference to Hollywood Shuffle famous line about Ho Cakes…”‘hoes gotta eat too.”

    • Joe Bean

      “Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms.” ~Josey Wales

  • kh

    When the toad gets picked up by the hawk instead of Rango, the toad shouts “you son of a…”and is cut off by the hawk screech. Nod to the last scene in The Good The Bad and The Ugly. Tuco shouting at Blondie.

    • JenR

      Good call!

  • Joel

    If I want to see a bunch of movie tributes, I’ll just visit imdb. I saw this with my mom and kids and thought it was VERY BORING, PURPOSELY WAY OVER KIDS HEADS, OVERLY-COMPLICATED, AND NOT FUNNY. It was an excruciating pain to sit through, and all the visual effects, in jokes, and Depp acting in the world, can’t save it. As a movie fan’s mashup, it might be amusing, but as a movie it was an incredible dissapointment. Nick can’t make a good movie to save its life.

    • Shey

      I agree with you Joel. Who are the people agreeing with the article? My 13 year old kept referencing Pirates of the Caribbean. I kept falling asleep. The kid who kept talking to his dad at the beginning of the movie fell asleep too. Not a kids movie. At all. Maybe I was asleep, but I didn’t understand what the mayor’s “BIG PLAN” was. why did he cut off the water? For progress? Who was going to live in his new town? Wierd. Boring. Want my time back.

      • Yo Yo

        Thank you Joel. In reading the first few comments, I felt like I was the only one who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. This isn’t a movie for kids, yet that’s how it is being marketed. Also, the climax seemed ripped from the Quick and the Dead.

      • Ana170

        The mayor didn’t cut off the water. Humans did. He knew this and was trying to profit as much as possible from owning all the land that was being developed.

    • Drach

      you do realize this movie is rated PG-13.

      meaning its not really intended for your 4 year old kid. oddly the only kid in the theater i went to who freaked alittle was a probably 2 year old and that didn’t happen till Jake showed up at the jail.

      • CJ

        It’s rated PG

  • beth

    Just saw Rango today. It was chock full of nuances that kids would not get – and more violence that was not appropriate for young kids. I saw some of the young kids in the audience covering their eyes from time to time. It was definately a movie for adults; with all the movie parodies and such. I was disappointed that it was not as funny as the trailers made it out to be. Surprised it has done as well as it has at the box office.

    • Ana170

      I agree that it’s not suitable for little kids but if more parents would pay attention to reviews and ratings they could have avoided this movie. Just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it’s for kids. Although I’d like to add that it’s okay for kids to be scared every once in a while. My 10-year-old nephew covered his eyes a few times but in the end had a great time. It’s part of the fun.

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