Free Fire

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PIERS MARCHANT

If Quentin Tarantino has taught us any­thing ( de­bat­able), it’s that re­straint is a front for less com­mit­ted artists to hide be­hind, sep­a­rat­ing them from true ge­nius. In other words, if you’re go­ing to all the trou­ble to make an out­ra­geous, amoral shoot’em- up, you might as well take it all the way. In any event, Ben Wheatley cer­tainly got the memo. His gonzo ac­tion epic plays like Reser­voir Dum­basses: It dances like no one’s watch­ing, and cov­ers the muddy tar­mac in spent bul­let cas­ings.

True to the na­ture of the genre, as lit­tle time is spent on setup and back story as pos­si­ble. In a de­serted mid-’ 70s Bos­ton ware­house, a group of gun run­ners, led by the ir­re­press­ible Ver­non ( Sharlto Co­p­ley), a slick, mus­ta­chioed South African with a hideous leisure suit he’s im­mensely proud of and his

own per­sonal catch­phrase (“Watch and Vern”), meet with a group of Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army mem­bers, led by the crafty Chris ( Cil­lian Mur­phy) and his hu­mor­less friend, Frank ( Michael Smi­ley), in a deal bro­kered by a bearded Cal­i­for­nian mys­te­ri­ously named “Ord” ( Ar­mie Ham­mer), and a shrewd, comely woman, Jus­tine ( Brie Lar­son), whose al­le­giances are un­clear.

The ex­change is meant to be sim­ple and fric­tion­less, but things don’t start well, when Ver­non presents sev­eral boxes of a dif­fer­ent ri­fle from what was or­dered. Con­spir­ing with his right- hand man, Martin ( Babou Ceesay), Vern in­tends to sell the orig­i­nal or­der to the Libyans for a ti­dier profit. From there, just as the brief­case full of cash is chang­ing hands, things go straight to hell when Harry ( Jack Reynor), one of Vern’s un­der­lings, rec­og­nizes Stevo ( Sam Ri­ley), Frank’s scroungy doo­fus brother- in- law, as the man he’d had an al­ter­ca­tion with the night be­fore at a bar. Tempers flare, shots are fired, and sud­denly every­one is scram­bling to take cover be­hind chunks of con­crete, wooden boxes, and steel sup­port beams. As bul­lets fly, of­ten into some­one’s leg or shoul­der, things get even more chaotic when a pair of snipers show up, hired by an un­known mem­ber of the group, to try and take every­one else down.

And that, in a nut­shell, is the en­tire film, a sort of bot­tle episode writ large, where the oft- witty repar­tee (“I’m not dead; I’m just re­group­ing.”) is only eclipsed by the amus­ingly novel ways in which this dis­parate group of screw- ups tries to off one- an­other in an at­tempt to be the last per­son stand­ing with the brief­case full of cash. Al­liances are forged, bro­ken, bro­kered and shot to pieces, with every­one at­tempt­ing to dou­ble- cross every­one else.

The film opens with over­head shots of Bos­ton at night, as the cam­era even­tu­ally comes to fol­low the van car­ry­ing Frank’s doped- up ac­com­plices, but that’s about as close as we — and the char­ac­ters — ever get to the

out­side world. In this arena, the com­bat­ants never get to see the light of day. Once shot, as Ord breezily ex­plains, you are given a “golden hour and a half” be­fore you ac­tu­ally die. The film’s run­ning time? Pre­cisely 90 min­utes.

What the movie never stops be­ing, though, is thor­oughly amus­ing, keep­ing its sar­donic hu­mor all the way to the last bul­let- rid­den corpse left in the sprin­kler- soaked mud of the aban­doned ware­house floor ( as an ex­tra stab at the soak­ing sur­vivors, it turns out the ware­house is used to man­u­fac­ture um­brel­las).

Wheatley, who co- wrote the script with long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Amy Jump, has cre­ated a per­fect ve­hi­cle for his brand of hy­per- vi­o­lence and hi­lar­i­ous for­ays (“he was mis­di­ag­nosed as a child ge­nius,” Jus­tine says of Ver­non, “and he never got over it”), a win­ning com­bi­na­tion if ever there was one. Through the hail of gun­fire and brutish hand- to- hand com­bat, the film never loses its nerve or its mer­ci­less sense of hu­mor (“I for­got whose side I’m on,” one thug com­plains shortly be­fore be­ing dis­patched). As fun as some of the char­ac­ters are, it doesn’t al­low you to get ter­ri­bly at­tached. Our sym­pa­thies might go to Chris, who at least seems like a lev­el­headed fel­low with a pur­pose in mind be­yond making a fast buck, or the beau­ti­ful Jus­tine, who ap­pears to be caught in a mess she never in­tended, but Wheatley treats ev­ery­body with the same kind of mirth­ful cru­elty. On this blood- soaked train, no­body gets a free pass, and the ironies abound.

It’s also a ver­i­ta­ble show­case of high- gloss ac­tors — in­clud­ing Ham­mer, Mur­phy, and Oscar- win­ner Lar­son — get­ting down, dirty, blood­ied, and drag­ging their beaten, bul­let- rid­den bod­ies over the grimy floor like bat­tered Room­bas. True, there’s not a whole lot of sub­tlety at work here — other than the amus­ingly sketched out char­ac­ters, and even there, their back­sto­ries don’t go much fur­ther than the night be­fore — but it has no pre­ten­sions other­wise. In­stead, it’s a turbo- charged bloody romp of fa­cial hair, fat lapels, John Den­ver songs, and the con­tin­u­ing as­sault of bul­lets fly­ing like Texas hail in all direc­tions.

Jus­tine ( Brie Lar­son) is a trig­ger- happy woman with mys­te­ri­ous mo­tives in Ben Wheatley’s hy­per­vi­o­lent shoot’em- up Free Fire.

Ord ( Ar­mie Ham­mer), Jus­tine ( Brie Lar­son), Chris ( Cil­lian Mur­phy), Stevo ( Sam Ri­ley) and Frank ( Michael Smi­ley) shoot fi rst and ask very few ques­tions in the bul­let- rid­den ac­tion com­edy Free Fire.

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