Irony isn't a recent invention. But a savvy popular culture watcher would have to notice that for the past 20 years or so, American culture has enjoyed - or endured - a sort Golden Age of Irony, as if the whole country has a permanently raised eyebrow, a tongue perpetually buried in its cheek.
So how does one turn one of the most unironic characters in screen history into a modern movie? You start with an actor who suggests unironic to the core. That actor is Armie Hammer.
"You can't make a movie now with the sort of story, characters and action that a 1950s TV show had," says Hammer, the earnest young star cast as the masked lawman in the new Gore Verbinski/Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. He worried that if he played The Lone Ranger's humorless rectitude straight that "the audience's snores would drown out the soundtrack."
We are, Hammer notes, "too hip for the guy the way he was. Audiences are more discerning, today - more sophisticated in terms of what they expect from a Western, a story like this. We had to give these two men a fresh twist and I hope we pull it off."
Who today would want to "return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear," where, "from out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver"? How can "The Lone Ranger" ride again?
Hammer and the production team deliver a masked man in a white hat on a white horse. Their Ranger still uses a silver bullet as a calling card. But his "sidekick" and faithful Indian companion, Tonto, is the sharp one, whom Johnny Depp makes an eye-rolling commentator on the gee-whiz earnestness of his "Kemosabe."
"There was such care taken in assembling the iconic elements of the original show," Hammer says. "We just wanted all those elements there, but given a fresh, modern twist."
So the new "Lone Ranger" has a robber baron as well as a darker, more violent reprise of the Masked Man's original nemesis back when he got his start as a radio character in the 1930s, outlaw Butch Cavendish. The U.S. Cavalry doesn't just "ride to the rescue." It does big business' bidding. Tonto is the wry observer to all this. But the Ranger? As straight an arrow as ever, with just a hint of self-awareness.
The chiseled Hammer, who first gained notice playing evangelist Billy Graham ("Billy: The Early Years") and as a member of the cast of TV's "Reaper," seemed a natural choice for this role. Director Gore Verbinski speaks of Hammer "not having a cynical or jaded bone in his body" and "boyish." So if you're planning on re-launching the Lone Ranger as a possible film franchise, you could do worse.
"After I got the role, I found the TV shows on DVD, the old radio serials, old comic books, books based on him," says Hammer, who was too young to have ever seen the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels TV series, even in reruns. "There's this whole culture around this character that I wanted to tap into. Who he was and how he came to be that masked man fascinated me."
After boning up on the legend, Hammer would have to elbow his way into the established "Pirates of the Caribbean" team of Verbinski and Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
"This project had been around so long that all the big decisions, and the grunt work on the script and the characters had been done before I got there," Hammer says. "I'd never fired two pistols while riding a horse through a moving train. So, something new, every day on the set. There might have been a time when actors learned this stuff over a career. I had to pick up all the cowboy skills straight away - lassoing, riding, roping, how to use a six-shooter. Not much call for those skills these days."
And the actor, who has done time on other big-budget productions (e.g. "Mirror, Mirror"), marveled at the no-expense-spared attention to detail that the veteran "Pirates" team brought to the Old West.
"Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to make sure we were there. So they built railroads, built towns that we then burned down. The more set they build, the less you, as an actor, have to imagine in your head. You can see and react to a real world that the movie has created for you to act in. Imagine standing in the desert in Monument Valley, Utah, in the middle of the night, a New Moon, pitch black. And there's this barn they've built just for the purpose of burning it to the ground."
Armand Douglas Hammer, who turns 27 in August, is the son of a publisher and owner of a TV production company, and great grandson of oil magnate and philanthropist Armand Hammer. No, playing the privileged Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network" was not the biggest stretch of his career. "The Lone Ranger"? Maybe a bit of a stretch, though he was more than happy to be Depp's straight man - the entire movie's straight man.
And apparently, it's whetted Hammer's appetite for unironic characters from TV shows. Next up, he's Russian sidekick-spy Illya Kuryakin in the big-screen "Man from U.N.C.L.E."
"I just started working on my Russian accent, doing a little Cold War spying research. Yeah, having fun with another TV show that's years before my time. But who wouldn't love to make a movie with Guy ("Sherlock Holmes") Ritchie?"