Review: Free Fire

Free Fire might be the best film I’ve seen so far in 2017 – it’s darkly humorous, quick and an effective action movie that succees despite a sparse plot.

In 1970s Boston, IRA representatives Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) aim to try and buy guns for the fight back home from Rhodesian arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). The deal is brokered by Americans Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson), but despite the main players’ attempts to do the deal, petty and macho disagreements between the two sides’ underlings cause everything to go, very quickly, to hell.

Having seen all but two of director (and co-writer) Ben Wheatley’s films, it was a welcome surprise to see he’d moved away from horror-thrillers with Free Fire. Retaining his skill at mixing genres together in a captivating film (with grim violence), this movie shows his potential as an action-thriller director is immense – and that comedy is a welcome addition to that mixture. The events and throughplot, from Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump, are pinned on the barest of premises, but it’s the quick and impressive work their writing does that clues you in on the characters, their personalities and motivations, before spinning everything off into mayhem. Their arguments and insults are also pleasingly foul-mouthed for such a bunch of “bad dudes”, with some zingers dotted about.

What I enjoyed most was it extends what other movies or TV shows might focus on for one scene – the dodgy arms deal gone wrong. Much like Reservoir Dogs, it’s based in a dingy, disused location with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, and nobody’s really innocent going in, let alone once it goes downhill. Early conversations paint in clearly how each character behaves or might act – the impulsive, the borderline psychopathic: they’re all just wind-up toys waiting to be set loose. And once the shooting starts, the character relationships are pleasingly and amusingly in flux, so you might end up favouring or liking one, while another viewer might feel differently. Curveball plot points are thrown in too just to add to the clusterf*ck, and come the excellent ending, you’re questioning how you felt about some characters over others.

The action, violence and comedy crash together to make the film what it is – and it’s hilarious. Posturing idiot Vern gets most of the best lines, while the assorted international crims pick each other apart for that too. This is a dark comedy filled with reprehensible people you can’t help but like, while quips and interchanges spark and simmer with macho bullshit, ready to ignite onscreen. The attention to period detail in costumes, hairstyles and ‘taches seamlessly throws you back, while the single location (amazingly, an old factory in Brighton) is meticulously thought-out and designed, lit excellently by cinematographer Laurie Rose through a haze of dust, metal wreckage and decay, painting a sorry picture (and making you cringe at the idea of having an open wound in there).

This is added to by slick yet clear editing by Jump and Wheatley – you’re nearly always aware where everyone is, which goes to show just how important to a solid, defined location can be. It’s attention to detail that only bolsters the realistic sheen, but the comedy pulls it entertainingly back into the world of make-believe. Their editing also helps illustrate the shifting loyalties and more urgent conclusion, as the “golden hour” for bullet wounds starts to elapse and our characters start to realise they’re in for it.

The cast is an integral element of Free Fire’s success. Murphy’s Chris is a rather dour and sarcastic Irishman whose bravado and mouth (like so many others here) land him in it, while Michael Smiley again channels his Irish rage as the unpredictable, bitter Frank, angry at the world and younger people. Sam Riley is a sleazy delight as the odious Stevo, Frank’s American cousin, while Enzo Cilenti rounds out the ‘IRA’ side with another sleazy, greaseball performance as the hapless Bernie. On the other side, Copley is the standout, oddball character – Vern is an unbelievably preening, hair-trigger idiot, and the South African actor dials up the regional stereotype for some of the funniest scenes. Babou Ceesay, as Vern’s despairing partner-in-crime Martin, starts off exasperated and keen to get the deal done, and finishes the movie in quite a different, no less hilarious state.

Noah Taylor’s henchman Gordon is largely obscured by the other, more outlandish characters on Vern’s side, which is a shame given his odious role in Game of Thrones. Jack Reynor (who I’ve only ever seen in a terrible Transformers film) however is excellent as the long-haired, impulsive snake Harry, who acts as the proverbial match for the fireworks, and illustrates the selfish desire of most criminals. Finally, we have Brie Larson and Armie Hammer’s mediators Justine and Ord, with Larson (the only woman) growing into the character as the events get more heated, and displaying a very resigned, incredulous and furious perspective on this most macho of meetings – offering in fact the most interesting character path.

Hammer meanwhile almost steals the show from Copley, with his clean, bearded and suave Ord working hard early on to both disparage and keep the peace with varying degrees of success, before displaying an almost psychopathic detachment and glee once the bullets start flying. Much like Reynor, he’s great at showing just how committed some people are to saving themselves, and gets many of the best lines, often as the resigned voice of reason when short ceasefires break out.

The music from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is largely underheard, but effective at setting the tone for the era and action – they also use a well-known John Denver song for hilarious and grim effect. On a final note, the violence is constant but funny – most movie characters that are shot go flying back, or keep running as if nothing happened. Here, gunshots are messy and debilitating, so before long everyone’s crawling, limping or moaning, and it just adds to that madcap, Looney Tunes sensibility. It’s not Hollywood, slow-mo action, but concussive and loud nonetheless – and when the going gets rough, it gets gruesome, with some life-ending injuries harking back to Wheatley’s previous films in terms of gore.

I honestly can’t find much fault with Free Fire – it’s short, it’s well-acted, it’s hilarious and it’s a genius movie to build on such a small event and expand it out like it does. I would watch dozens more films like this from the British director – it’s highly recommended for action, comedy and Ben Wheatley fans.

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