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Film Review: Free Fire

Free Fire (2016; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

After an early-career period of gritty but underseen Britside crime films, bewhiskered English director Ben Wheatley has assumed a decent critically-noticed profile as crafted of tense and graphic bottle-episode movies. This phase began with the black-and-white A Field in England, about 17th-century Civil War soldiers bickering and slaughtering each other in a pasture, and followed it with the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, about a luxe apartment building whose privileged residents descend into chaos.

Given this genre-film niche Wheatley has carved out of depicting strong personalities clashing with verbal heat and violent physicality in confined spaces, Free Fire seems an almost-too-obvious next step. Portraying the sharp banter and deadly gunplay that ensues when a 1970s-vintage arms deal in a Boston-area abandoned factory goes disastrously south, Free Fire is a dead-simple movie in concept and only slightly more complex in execution.

The buyers in this deal are led by IRA-connected Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and supported by bumbling local Irish-American relations Stevo (Sam Riley), an imprudent chatterbox, and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), a good-natured simpleton. They are buying semi-automatic arms for the Republican cause from a smarmy South African dandy named Vernon (Sharlto Copley, because who else could match that description?) and his ex-Black Panther partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). The go-betweens are smooth criminal-world operator Ord (Armie Hammer) and the inscrutable Justine (Brie Larson). Initial personal friction (the boastful Vernon is a bit much to take, even for his partners) worsens when the wrong merchandise is proffered, and then a slow-burning fuse is lit and eventually explodes when Stevo and Vernon’s henchman Harry (Jack Reynor) turn out to have had a violent altercation over the former’s abuse of the latter’s cousin in a neighbourhood bar the night before.

Triggers begin to be pulled and bullets begin to fly, and bare survival for all involved becomes the modus operandi, with the added bonus of a suitcase full of cash to any who manage to endure the fusillade. Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump come up with a series of exchanges and scenarios to keep the most-of-the-movie-length shootout fresh and engaging (ie. Martin brings along a couple of snipers as secret back-up, one of which Ord recognizes; a phone starts ringing in the building, with the promise of calling for aid, etc.). That said, exciting as it generally remains, Free Fire never wins back the enervated momentum it whips up at the commencement of the shooutout, especially as the participants are hobbled by an increasing number of wounds and are reduced to crawling along the dirty floors and attempting to dispatch their similarly-crippled foes.

This sort of potboiler is hardly prime material for political applicability (and outside of some Troubles-related insults being thrown around, Free Fire offers none) or for fine performances, but some of the actors manage some decent-to-strong work, with Hammer especially all movie-star confidence and swagger as the cool, collected, witty Ord. There’s also two memorably transgressive applications of John Denver’s “Annie Song”, both as left-field footsteps-of-doom anticipation of calamity and as post-calamity ironic summation. It’s an enjoyable trifle that is soon forgotten, however, and Wheatley seemed to be moving in quite an opposite direction as a filmmaker with his recent work. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of violent, clever fun like Free Fire, but for a director beginning to indicate that he is capable of a great deal more, it feels like a bit of a step back.

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