Free Fire; Film Songs

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THE BRI­TISH film­maker Ben Wheat­ley has made his those-who-can’t views on crit­ics well known in in­ter­views, so far be it from him to openly court us in his work. Yet there are mo­ments when Free Fire, his sixth fea­ture film, feels like it’s been made with cer­tain ba­nally ex­u­ber­ant poster quotes specif­i­cally in mind. Wheat­ley’s bang­ing, clat­ter­ing heist thriller in­vites crit­ics to write lines like: “Comes in with all guns blaz­ing!”—and many have duly obliged.

Ex­cept when it comes to Free Fire, that’s not so much a hack­neyed en­dorse­ment as a neu­tral state­ment of fact: The gun­fire begins all but im­me­di­ately, and on the slimmest of pre­texts. Twenty min­utes in, when enough bul­lets had been sprayed and ex­ple­tives spewed to fill an av­er­age Tarantino movie, my date turned to me and said, with a faint note of des­per­a­tion, “Oh God, it’s just this for an­other hour, isn’t it?” He was 10 min­utes short of the mark, but oth­er­wise: Yep.

For a di­rec­tor whose out­ings in the past four years have in­cluded a black com­edy about se­rial-killer tourists in the English Mid­lands ( Sight­seers) to a dizzy J.G. Bal­lard dystopia ( High-rise) to what­ever acid-night­mare fuel A Field in Eng­land was, Free Fire is his most com­mer­cial film to date: a short, sim­ple, retro-lean­ing thriller, low on thought and high on ac­tion, speck­led with sexy names look­ing tremen­dous in ’70s polyester-chic. All of those things it may be, yet some­how it adds up to one of Wheat­ley’s more sub­ver­sive gam­bles: an ado­les­cent boy’s idea of op­ti­mum cin­ema, with all the bor­ing bits— char­ac­ters, re­la­tion­ships, emo­tional mo­ti­va­tion—taken out, and only the good stuff left. Guns! Blood! Swear­ing! Ban­ter! Guns! Blood! More guns!

To be fair, an or­di­nate amount of guns is to be ex­pected. We’re deal­ing with arms deal­ers here, though Wheat­ley’s deal­ers don’t do a lot of deal­ing: Once in use, their prod­uct tends to cut ne­go­ti­a­tions rather short. South African mer­chant Ver­non (Sharlto Co­p­ley, us­ing his na­tive Jo­han­nes­burg ac­cent for a change) is set to sell a large cache of weapons to a mot­ley crew that in­cludes Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army mid­dle­man Chris (Cil­lian Mur­phy), scuzzy as­so­ci­ate Frank (Wheat­ley reg­u­lar Michael Smi­ley) and enig­matic lone wolf Jus­tine (Brie Lar­son); dap­per bro­ker Ord (a lushly bearded Ar­mie Ham­mer) is on hand to en­sure the han­dover goes smoothly. Sur­prise! It does not. Dim-bulb Ver­non has brought the wrong gear; dim­mer-bulb lack­eys on ei­ther side of the deal start a per­sonal squab­ble that fast es­ca­lates into an every-man­for-him­self ammo-gasm.

That, to an­swer Peggy Lee’s eter­nal ques­tion, truly is all there is, as our at­trac­tive en­sem­ble is thinned out in ever-gris­lier ways. It’s an ex­per­i­ment

in econ­omy, how­ever, that proves counter pro­duc­tive. Rather than mak­ing Free Fire the ul­ti­mate con­cen­trated sugar-rush of an ac­tion movie, ex­cis­ing those pesky bor­ing bits cre­ates its own va­ri­ety of bore­dom. The film’s fre­netic-from-the-get-go ac­tiv­ity—set en­tirely in and around a sin­gle drab Bos­ton ware­house, lin­ing up a set of hu­man bowl­ing pins for the sole pur­pose of see­ing which one stands the long­est—swal­lows any larger, more grad­ual sense of move­ment. There’s some­thing im­pres­sive in the way Free Fire hits and sus­tains a sin­gle high­pitched note from be­gin­ning to bloody end, but with so little psy­chol­ogy to dis­rupt the car­nage, it’s an ex­er­cise that could achieve its mod­est aims as eas­ily in 15 min­utes as in 90.

So what do we get from tak­ing the longer route? For one thing, a heftier dose of Wheat­ley’s cin­e­mato­graphic style: Even in those stray sec­onds when noth­ing is be­ing fired, the film it­self is ablaze in hot, sticky shades of orange, as if the screen were mar­i­nated in Aperol. The Por­tishead in­stru­men­tal­ist Ge­off Bar­row con­trib­utes to a sound­track as loud and rous­ing as the color pal­ette. And Wheat­ley has great taste in cast­ing: Mur­phy and Lar­son are the kind of actors you could watch all day, even when they’re given little to do but pose in lus­ciously lurid flared pantsuits and drooped col­lars.

But these are short­term sen­sory plea­sures; you could as hap­pily (if some­what more qui­etly) leaf through a Free Fire fea­ture in a mag­a­zine for the same re­wards. Wheat­ley and Amy Jump’s script is packed with quip­pery that isn’t mem­o­rable enough to quote and char­ac­ters whose names you for­get the sec­ond af­ter the screen turns to black. The slain bod­ies could fill a get­away truck, but noth­ing has re­ally hap­pened. This is a movie that may fire freely, but by the end, it’s shooting mostly blanks. — GUY LODGE

LINE OF FIRE: The deal­ers and wheel­ers of Free Fire in­clude ( from

far left) Ar­mie Ham­mer as Ord, Brie Lar­son as Jus­tine, Cil­lian Mur­phy as Chris, Sam Ri­ley as Stevo and Michael Smi­ley as Frank.

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