Synopsis – Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.
My Take – Finally one of my favorite films of Dubai International Film Festival 2016 (DIFF16) is releasing this weekend in U.A.E cinemas! Filled with a barrage of bullets and one liners, this latest effort from UK renegade director, Ben Wheatley, following the mixed reception of his Science fiction drama, High-Rise (2016), is a Tarantino inspired ‘Reservoir Dogs’-esque version, with a quirky British tone, and filled with American, Irish and South African characters in a large scale Mexican stand-off to form a multicultural haven. Following a look at the summary, you would think that this would just be another one of those crime films that were so obvious in the late 90s, but thankfully in the hands of Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley‘s writing skills, this film takes a well recognized genre and twists the traits to create a wonderfully witty 90 minute bizarre film with fantastically-written dialogues and some excellent humor thrown in. The story follows two set of groups who meet in an abandoned warehouse to undergo an arms deal in Boston, Massachusetts 1978. Brokered by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer), the buyer group consists of Chris (Cillian Murphy) & Frank (Michael Smiley), members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), who have also brought with them a couple of crack- head roadies Stevo (Sam Riley), Frank’s brother in law and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) who are far from stable for this kind of job. On the selling side is South African dealer and “international a-hole” Vern (Sharlto Copley), and his associate Martin (Babou Ceesay) who have come along with their handymen Harry (Jack Reynor), and Gordon (Noah Taylor). The mood at the warehouse is tense but both parties seem willing to do business, but a couple of things delay the proceedings, the first being, Vernon bringing in the wrong model of assault rifles which initially upsets Chris, but after some coaxing from Justine, he resumes with the process. However, the bigger problem begins Harry and Stevo lay eyes on each other and remember the bar fight they had gotten into the night before.
Tempers flare and cooler heads try to calm everyone down, but after one of them pulls a gun and shoots the other, the time for caution is over as all of them scramble for the nearest cover and it’s not long before a full on shootout between the two gangs occurs, leading to bullets flying all over the place and a game of survival for everyone involved. For a 90 minute film, that’s basically it and if you think after viewing the trailer “there must be more to the film than this” you’re wrong! Filmed in glorious western-hued yellow-brown, the film is a tense, late night gun deal gone wrong, pitting the itchy-fingered buyers against the itchy-fingered sellers, in a dusty warehouse shootout. As plots go, this is pretty exact, sure there’s a nice little twist here and there, but this film succeeds on the hilarious interaction of the many quirky characters. The film wastes no time in getting into things and when the entire cast is together, the film really does fire on all cylinders. The film’s first act is intriguing, characters and their alliances are established fairly quickly, and the tension and humor of the deal was executed brilliantly. The deal itself is perhaps the highlight of the film as Wheatley and Jump‘s script, as well as Wheatley‘s direction perfectly sets up the tone of the film, which is a perfect blend of tension and humor. We watch in anticipation as we know things will go crazy, but we also laugh at Justine’s eye rolls, Gordon’s contrapuntal choice of music and Vernon’s asshole personality etc. Once the inevitable first shot is fired, after a well-done first act that establishes the characters and tone whilst sewing several seeds of anticipatory tension, the feature kicks it up a notch with a simultaneously broadly chaotic and intimately low-key initial skirmish. After that, Wheatly wisely plays with the pace of the piece by purposefully peppering long stretches of perpetual pot-shots with powerful explosions of meaningful confrontation. He also includes a couple of small but significant side-steps to his own formula, which introduce life back into the situation whenever it threatens to become stale. It’s a different kind of shootout, too, with less blood but perhaps more pain; it’s not long before every character is unflatteringly crawling around the dirty floor, contorting their bodies to hide behind the various cover available, and almost everyone has at least one wound to contend with. Here, he turns this empty warehouse into a war zone with each of these characters taking cover behind various objects and firing blindly. Unlike a lot of generic action films where characters seem to magically dodge bullets, no one is safe and everyone eventually gets scraped or hit by bullets. This leads to some fun sequences of characters crawling on the ground to get from one cover to the next. Director Ben Wheatley certainly has a twisted sense of humor, evident in films such as The Kill List and High-Rise, and he brings it to proceedings once again here, as the film is an absolute laugh riot from start to finish and some of the most fun I’ve had at the cinema. Sure, the jokes are almost all one-liners but I was chuckling throughout. The characters are so overwhelmed with this situation that their reactions of fear and disbelief come across as natural. You also laugh at how these people are terrible shots. It was nice to see an action scene not exclusively participated in by marksmen. A lot of the hits come from ricochets (which you also don’t normally see) and these people can’t hit the broad side of a barn in particular scenes.
This intentional chaos is seasoned with occasional black humor and witty exchanges between the characters, which provides comic relief and some time for the viewers to take a breath between the showers of bullets. There’s also love triangle of sorts between Chris, Justine & Vernon; a blood feud between rival henchmen Harry and Stevo, a pissing contest between the self-serious Frank and the quick-witted Ord. And somewhere in the middle of it all, someone double-crosses everyone else by bringing additional snipers to the party. At first, keeping track of who was in the right for shooting and who was not, was easy, but as the film continues some character motivations are made clearer which may lead one to question whose side anyone is actually on, as it turns out, they’re all in it for themselves. The gun-play here also seems to be mostly practical, leading it to feel tactile and tangible, and attention is paid to the amount of ammo used too. It’s common for characters to reload their weapons or scramble for another clip, and even things like gun-jams occur. These moments never feel like plot devices, rather more like simple realities of actually using these weapons, and lend believability to the piece that adds to the overall tension. Each bullet hits its target with true impact, sending dust and debris spewing everywhere, and characters are affected by every aspect of the environment which truly compounds them in the space. No-one has auto-aim enabled either, leading to characters missing crucial shots even when it’d be beneficial to the plot for them not to, which makes everyone seems human no matter their level of weapon expertise. The one place setting brings up obvious similarities with Reservoir Dogs – which does bring me to the lack of characterization in the film; Tarantino somehow managed to make us feel for a bunch of colors, while Wheatley, however has left it gapingly open, I know, back-story obviously isn’t what the director was going for here, but we’d certainly feel the wounds more so if we knew a little history about these people, right? While you’re absorbed in the constant loud gun violence, there’s so much more cinematic work in the background. Laurie Rose‘s camera performance has a magnificent way of creating a grounded circumference of the single location and heightened at the level of the characters. Combined with the incredible put together gunshot noise, you really have a sense of being in the room with them and you have an intense atmosphere knowing and not knowing where they are shooting from, plus, with a great soundtrack mainly consisting of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” produces a remarkable lasting memory of the film. The ensemble cast in this film was phenomenal with a stand out performance from Sharlto Copley. Sure, his South African accent makes him sound funnier but there is no doubt that Copley‘s Vernon gets the majority of the film’s quips and he absolutely revels in them. Armie Hammer was also good! His character is the most comfortable with the conflict and Hammer has a nice balance between cool and funny. Cillian Murphy has one of the more prominent roles and he manages to bring the coldness we are so used to seeing from him. Brie Larson gives the film its singular female character and she’s certainly no pushover. Larson plays Justine with a sense of grit and superior intellect over her male counterparts. There’s also some fine support from Jack Reynor and Sam Riley who more than once stand out in their hilarious exchanges! The others, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Michael Smiley and Noah Taylor also have moments to shine. On the whole, ‘Free Fire’ is definitely one of the most consistently entertaining films that is wholly unpretentious, hilarious and definitely worth a watch on the big screen.
Directed – Ben Wheatley
Run Time – 90 minutes