FREE FIRE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Ben Wheatley

Stars: Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay, Patrick Bergin.

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While certainly ambitious in endeavour, the setup for Free Fire is simplicity itself. Boston 1978. Two groups meet in a deserted dockside warehouse to conduct a deal to buy guns. On one side of the deal are Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy, from Peaky Blinders, etc) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and on the other side a gang led by the dapper Vernon (South African actor Sharlto Copley, from District 9, etc) and Ord (Armie Hammer). The deal was brokered by Justine (Oscar winner Brie Larson, from Room, etc, who stepped into the role after Olivia Wilde dropped out shortly before shooting began). But the seemingly straightforward deal quickly spirals out of control and turns into an elongated shootout.

And who would have thought that an extended bullet-ridden shootout that runs for most of the film’s running time, could be so entertaining and funny. A strong streak of black humour runs through the material, but there are also many laugh out loud moments as the inept characters struggle to survive. There is a strong line in witty, macho banter here that is also very funny. There is a delightful nudge nudge, wink wink attitude here that will resonate with audiences who are in the right frame of mind. This is evident through the use of John Denver on the soundtrack, as his classic hit punctuates the sound of gunfire. The film takes some unexpected and unpredictable turns, and the main interest lies in trying to guess which of these lowlife characters will survive this carnage. Free Fire is both hilarious and brutal, and includes some balletic and superbly choreographed carnage.

Free Fire has been written by British filmmaker Ben Wheatley and his wife and regular collaborator Amy June (Sightseers, etc). The pair also share editorial duties here and they bring a kinetic sense of energy to the material, and he finds inventive ways to stage the shootings. He makes the most of the static, claustrophobic setting and finds creative ways to stage the action. All of the action is confined to the single location – the interior of the deserted warehouse – and this dusty dirty setting is perfectly suited for the gritty material. Bullets hit bodies with bloody realism, blood spurts, and injured bodies drag themselves to whatever cover they find. But the film is also an exploration of the futility of violence and of America’s gun culture. The spirit of Sam Peckinpah runs through the film, but this balletic shootout will also remind film buffs of the work of John Woo and even Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

This is a very dirty and grungy looking film, that has been stylishly shot in muted brown and orange colours by Wheatley’s regular cinematographer Laurie Rose. Martin Parvey has created a great symphonic soundscape full of gunshots, ricochets and the thump of bullets into flesh.

Wheatley puts his small cast through a very physical wringer here. Larson’s strong presence here tempers the overload of testosterone. Copley is very funny here as an eccentric arms dealer, and his dry observations bring a strong streak of humour to the material. Hammer has a dry approach but he also has a strong physical presence and plenty of charisma. The supporting cast also includes Sam Riley as the hot headed Stevo, whose presence in the warehouse is the catalyst for the eruption of violence; Noah Taylor who brings some comic energy to his role as Gordon; and Jack Reynor who plays another inept thug in Harry.

Free Fire is a lean, mean and purely straight-out propulsive action film, and a generous helping of gun porn too, that grabs the audience from the outset. This is the 6th film from Wheatley, a filmmaker who has moved through a diverse range of genres in his short but interesting career and who specialises in dark and nihilistic fare. This is easily his most mainstream and most accessible film to date. It will certainly reach a wider audience than his previous film the dystopian sci-fi head scratcher High Rise. One of the champions of the film is the great Martin Scorsese, who knows a little about screen violence and bloody carnage himself.

★★★☆

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