Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2017)
A sublimely trippy action movie (of sorts, given that it mostly takes place in one location), Free Fire profiles a gun deal that goes very bad, very quickly. The title refers to the shooting, which starts soon after our cast of characters arrive in the deserted waterfront warehouse where money is to be exchanged for weapons. That cast includes Brie Larson (Room), Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Cillian Murphy (In the Heart of the Sea) and Sharlto Copley (Hardcore Henry), among others, bedecked in outfits and hairstyles (including, for the men, facial hair) appropriate to the 1970s setting. There’s a lot of directorial flash (beyond that from gunfire) on display here, and Ben Wheatley (High-Rise) keeps things moving in a marvelously kinetic way that belies the static setting. If ultimately there is not a lot of there there – beyond the unspoken mantra that violence begets violence, etc. – it almost doesn’t matter, since Wheatley tells his story in a frenzy of panache that leads us to laugh at the sadistic excess as each bullet (and there are so many) hits its mark. In many was a nihilistic tour de force, it’s probably not for everyone, but it’s mostly good fun for those who like their carnage with a dash of wit.
We know we’re in the hands of a master stylist in the very first full scene, one of the few that takes place outside. As the petty criminals bicker, Hammer (I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the character names and I don’t care), emerges from the distant shadows, a well-dressed man with wide lapels and a bushy beard, slowly approaching the group. It’s the kind of relaxed saunter he should have perfected in the fiasco that was 2013’s dismal The Lone Ranger. Here he’s all business, ignoring the unsettling sleaze of his clients as best he can, determined to take his cash and go. That is not to be. Murphy heads up the team, such as they are, of purchasers – members of the Irish Republican Army, it seems – with Larson as the go-between. Ostensibly in league with Hammer, hothead Copley cannot keep his temper from flaring at every insult, which leads to mayhem, and the resultant “free fire.” The subtitle should be “what happens when stupid people get their hands on guns.” Wheatley knows a thing or two about camera movement, production design and editing, and so whatever the occasional inanity (which may be the point) of what plot there is, he whips us through the chaos as if we, ourselves, are the bullets.
Beyond Hammer, Larson, Murphy and Copley – all excellent (and Copley has more than annoyed me before, so this is a nice change) – the rest of the large ensemble more than hold their own. I did not much care for Wheatley’s High Rise, which seemed to take itself too seriously, overwhelming the director’s playful mise-en-scène with heavy messaging. There are no such issues in Free Fire, which offers delightful anarchy in lieu of deeper substance, thereby actually saying a thing or two of weight. Blood, guts and brains flying through the air have rarely offered such visceral joy and laughter. The motley crew more than deserves what it gets, and if you can stomach the bloodbath, you, O Sociopathic Cinephile, will get what you deserve.