FREE FIRE ★★★★★

Empire (Australasia) - - On.Screen - HELEN O’HARA

OUT 27 APRIL RATED MA15+ / 91 MINS

DI­REC­TOR Ben Wheat­ley

CAST Brie Lar­son, Cil­lian Mur­phy, Sharlto Co­p­ley, Ar­mie Ham­mer, Michael Smi­ley

PLOT 1970s Bos­ton, and Ir­ish­men Chris (Mur­phy) and Frank (Smi­ley) ar­range to buy guns from Ver­non (Co­p­ley) in a deal set up by Jus­tine (Lar­son) and Ord (Ham­mer). But an old grudge be­tween two par­tic­i­pants leads to a gun bat­tle.

THE MOST PRO­LIFIC and one of the most pro­fi­cient film­mak­ers to come out of the UK in the last decade, Ben Wheat­ley has al­ready proved him­self across hor­ror, thriller and what­ever genre High-rise was (pe­riod sci-fi psy­cho-drama?). Now he moves to Amer­ica — not lit­er­ally; he’s still shoot­ing in Brighton — and es­tab­lishes him­self as an ac­tion di­rec­tor too. Surely a ni­hilis­tic rom­com is next.

Wheat­ley’s econ­omy of sto­ry­telling is im­pres­sive here. There are ten key char­ac­ters and at least four groups in this tale of an arms deal gone wrong, but their per­son­al­i­ties and re­la­tion­ships are so briskly es­tab­lished that, when the bul­lets start fly­ing 20 min­utes in, we can pre­dict who each per­son will tar­get or pro­tect. Or — this be­ing Wheat­ley — we think we can. Com­par­isons to Reser­voir Dogs are prob­a­bly

in­evitable given the ware­house set­ting, co­pi­ous firearms and end­lessly quotable script, but this is a sleeker and more vi­o­lent film (though per­haps less sadis­tic).

The story opens on a cou­ple of Bos­to­nian ne’er-do-wells, Bernie (Enzo Ci­lenti) and Stevo (Sam Ri­ley). Stevo is bruised and sore af­ter some sort of brawl the night be­fore, but they’ve been hired by vis­it­ing Ir­ish­men Chris (Mur­phy) and Frank (Smi­ley) as mus­cle at an ex­change of arms for cash, so Bernie holds him in line. The Ir­ish pair are pre­sum­ably Repub­li­can ter­ror­ists, but among this crowd, ter­ror­ists are at the more sym­pa­thetic end of the spec­trum — par­tic­u­larly given Mur­phy’s shy flir­ta­tions with Brie Lar­son’s Jus­tine, the fixer who has in­tro­duced the par­ties to this deal.

Jus­tine’s coun­ter­part is Ord (Ham­mer), a nat­tily dressed psy­chopath so calm he’s al­most hor­i­zon­tal, and the arms dealer is Sharlto Co­p­ley’s Ver­non. A pea­cock­ing brag­gart and ob­nox­ious per­vert in a be­spoke suit, Co­p­ley com­mits ut­terly to his cring­ing at­tempts to flirt with Jus­tine and threat­ens to run away with the film. But in­stead, two sup­port­ing par­tic­i­pants dis­cover a stand­ing grudge and a fight breaks out. Soon the air is filled with bul­lets — call it Chekhov’s arms cache — and ev­ery­one is nurs­ing at least one wound.

The hour of gun­fight­ing that fol­lows isn’t quite as strong as Wheat­ley’s pre­vi­ous films. While he and co-writer Amy Jump do a mirac­u­lously good job of shift­ing up the pace reg­u­larly, there’s still a mid-film lag where the snip­ing threat­ens to be­come mo­not­o­nous. And af­ter a strong first half, it inches im­per­cep­ti­bly to its crescendo, a pay-off not quite as left­field as his other work.

Still, un­like the fa­mil­iar Amer­i­can slugfests, this has sur­prises. There are mo­ments where ev­ery­one tries to step back from the brink of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion, and pauses where they look for an exit strat­egy. What’s more, these gun­shots re­ally hurt. A wound to the leg leaves peo­ple crawl­ing, not run­ning slightly more slowly like most ac­tion he­roes. By the third act most of the sur­vivors are on their bel­lies, grasp­ing des­per­ately at weapons only just out of reach. It’s as­ton­ish­ing how novel that seems.

VERDICT Wheat­ley con­tin­ues an un­bro­ken run of qual­ity, helped by a great cast and a star­tlingly ef­fec­tive premise. This is se­ri­ously cool, stuffed with great di­a­logue and rid­dled with bul­lets.

Cil­lian Mur­phy, Sam Ri­ley and Michael Smi­ley take cover.

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