How do you make a charming movie star out of a Winklevoss?
Midway through Ben Wheatley’s new one-long-gunfight movie Free Fire, Armie Hammer’s character picks up a machine gun. This escalation will perhaps elicit an exhale and a “finally” from the audience. Hammer plays a deal broker called Ord in a gun-buy gone south, and to this point every shooter in the ensemble cast has ironically been limited to revolvers. But Hammer’s increased firepower at this moment is as fitting as his tailored wool blazer. In a movie where each crook is initially unleashed with quick and clever characterization, Hammer’s shtick — the fashion-conscious criminal liaison surrounded by goons — has legs and teeth. He’s firing on more cylinders than anyone in this action-comedy, which stars dramatic heavy hitters Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy and UK genre-flick staples Michael Smiley and Noah Taylor. For as long as any of them are allowed to stay alive, Hammer’s Ord is both the most memorable and the funniest criminal on screen.
If this seems like a wholly unlikely superlative to hand a B-list star who made a nation groan as the masked man in 2013’s The Lone Ranger and had us somehow rooting for Jesse Eisenberg’s ruthless and acerbic Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, yes, Hammer’s comedic prowess and sheer wattage in Free Fire appear suddenly and serendipitously. The new film from A24 recognizes a possibility in Hammer’s acting ethos that few movies are observant and playful enough to tease out. There’s humor to be had with the part of the dashing, 6’5 WASP. Verbose and ambassadorial, Ord has the polish of a luxury car salesman in a group of seven violent criminals who’d just as soon kill each other than ask where they buy their ties.
In his now decade-long career, plenty of movies have deemed Hammer too blonde, too big and seemingly too well bred to play a good guy. Never was that more obvious than last year when he played Amy Adams’ clammy, distant husband in Nocturnal Animals, a movie in which the all-consuming selfishness of every character was half the point. Hammer embodied a philandering, Sharper Image-loving materialist named Hutton Morrow. Because “Enron Davenport” was taken?
Hammer’s main obstacle in letting his talent to the fore is that casting directors can apparently smell the money on him. The 30-year-old actor comes from immense wealth, and that background was mirrored in his breakout role playing the Winklevoss brothers, the pair of towering and vindictive Harvard rowers who sued Mark Zuckerberg saying he stole their idea for Facebook. From Gossip Girl to The Social Network to Nocturnal Animals, few pigeonholes seem less fun than being typecast as Tom Buchanan when you may have aspirations to play Gatsby.
There are seemingly two escape routes from the Winklevoss shadow. Hammer has tried one path recently, and it’s dreadfully hard to watch, which is just to play against type in the most melodramatic, rustic ways possible. He fretted and loomed as conflicted slave owner Samuel Turner in last year’s The Birth of a Nation and solos as a stranded Marine in the critically panned new film Mine. In these roles, as with the Lone Ranger, Hammer comes off as a burlier Robert Redford-type trying to hide his clean cut looks beneath tragedy and forced grit. You can’t transform blue blood into a blue collar so easily.
The smarter, more appealing path is precisely where Free Fire ignites — subversion of Hammer’s glossy, elitist roles. In the new film, Hammer puts on a manicured 1978 masculinity: something like Burt Reynolds meets Dan Fogelberg, or a Bee Gee mixed with then-NFL linebacker Jack Ham. Ord has undeniable yuppie smarm to him, but he’s committed his immoral capitalist streak to the black market. He talks and dresses like an ad exec trying to smooth over a conference room while actually presiding over a trade of unmarked cash for killing machines in a dilapidated factory. That irony is the most reliable written gag throughout Free Fire’s equal parts bloody and cheeky 90 minutes.
Fresh from seeing how Hammer’s shines amid Wheatley’s brutality and banter, you might wonder how he doesn’t nab more marquee starring roles, like say, ones Ben Affleck is aging out of. But there’s still Hammer’s total inability to play the gifted everyman, and not the gratuitously gifted statue. That perception exists from first blush: he’s named “Armie Hammer” not Ben Affleck — forever more Cambridge than Southie. The best-case comparison for Hammer’s future may be Jon Hamm, an actor capable of both drama and comedy who looks too perfect to get his hands dirty but isn’t. In drama, their common tack could be playing a man with everything but goodness and fulfillment. And in comedy, Hammer could thrive doing something akin to Hamm’s recurring role on 30 Rock, someone too handsome to know he’s a fool. Hammer is already a willing and charming late night talk show guest, where his easy rapport with any host and his vocal register are also reminiscent of Hamm’s. He’s not only mastered that endearing promotional note of “Isn’t celebrity culture ridiculous but fun?” but also dances quite unabashedly for a giant.
A role as colorfully written, yet light as Ord in Free Fire is a rarity. Few films would, for example, let Hammer choke out a man while growling that the scent for which the victim is mocking him is beard oil, not perfume. Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump have loaded a script with unlimited ammo in the one-liner department. But to make good on his potential, Hammer should take any role where a director is willing to riff on a character with the posh posture of a Winklevoss. Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E was a mild failure by about every measure, but it still had the winking good sense to let Alicia Vikander poke and prod Hammer’s stiff carriage over and over. Hammer needs to connect with more artists who’d look at a cartoonishly handsome, successful man and wouldn’t respond in their art with lust, envy, hatred or worship, but would laugh at the excess.
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