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Free Fire
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by Jay Seaver

"Nearly all great action, no filler."
5 stars

SCREENED AT MONSTER FEST 2016: Ben Wheatley has accumulated a cult fanbase by making films that strive to cut out the bits that aren’t in some way special, figuring that most people have seen enough movies to fill in the blanks or just go without if it means not seeing one more bloody scene of a local explaining his town’s weird history to the main character just because it’s going to play out later. At times, this gives his movies a thrill of discovery that they might not otherwise have; at its worst, this impulse can make movies like "High-Rise" seem perplexing and full of weirdos doing things at random. In "Free Fire", it makes for a mainstream action movie that just doesn’t mess around, letting a crazy gunfight expand to fill almost the entire running time without making the audience wait around for the good parts.

The action takes place in 1978, where a number of lowlives have gathered in a Boston warehouse, looking to do an arms deal. Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy) are IRA soldiers looking to buy, Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vernon (Sharlto Copley) are looking to sell, and former Fed Justine (Brie Larson) is brokering the deal. Seems easy enough, but the guns Vernon brought aren’t the model Chris was looking for, and one of Vernon’s guys, Harry (Jack Reynor), has a serious beef with Stevo (Sam Riley), Frank's junkie brother. That would be enough to get people to start shooting, even if a double-cross wasn’t already inevitable.

So they start shooting at each other, and really don’t stop until the movie ends; moments of conversation generally involve the participants hiding behind whatever may provide them cover, speaking sotto voce to the person next to them or yelling across the open space. This doesn’t make it a dumb action movie at all, it turns out - the script by Wheatley and partner Amy Jump is full of tremendously funny bits, and while they may have a character yell out in the middle that he’s forgotten which side he’s on, the plotting is certainly tighter than they could have gotten away with. As is their tendency, these filmmakers focus on what’s interesting and exciting, understanding that the audience really doesn’t care that much about the lives of these characters outside this room and thus not wasting any time with flashback and the bare minimum on set-up, dropping enough of what a viewer needs to not be jolted out of the film by wondering why that person is doing that thing which doesn’t make sense without killing the momentum.

Which isn’t to say that the actors are playing generic shooting gallery targets; the film offers up a talented and charismatic ensemble that plays well off each other. Copley chews scenery as Vernon, playing up the bluster of a guy used to having his own way but kind of out of his depth when he’s dealing with people that push back; his yelling, frantic performance is hilarious but also presents the blind ingenuity of a man very talented at weaseling his way out of danger. Armie Hammer, on the other hand, is smooth and casual as Ord, letting the 1970s beard make him come off as capable but not slick, always able to add a layer of reassurance to his intimidation to make Ord a dangerous guy who still seems like he’d be fun to have around. Heck, even when he’s hitting on Justine, it comes across as almost charming in its smarminess. She’s not having any of it, of course; she’s used to being the only woman in a room full of men who consider themselves alpha males, and Brie Larson tosses out the sarcastic responses with perfect tartness, striding confidently through the warehouse with just enough swagger to rub characters the wrong way but have the audience smile a little bit wider as she does. They’re surrounded by fun character actors, too, with Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, and Babou Ceesay just about half of the group that finds a way to stand out even though the audience knows that they’re probably there to absorb bullets.

There are, of course, a lot of bullets, enough to make it a real challenge for Wheatley and company. Frantic editing and pacing wouldn’t work here; it would wear the audience out well before the halfway mark. This much action requires Wheatley have the fundamentals down cold even as he’s cutting things close to the bone, getting the audience familiar with the space, how good everyone is, and just how powerful a given weapon might be. He gives himself room to work and uses the destruction caused to shake things up so that the same location isn’t quite the same throughout, and throws monkey wrenches into situations without losing a step. Every piece of the action is executed near-perfectly without the total becoming too much.

It’s also a great looking movie, with great 1970s designs that nevertheless don’t become too kitschy, and a great-sounding one, from the way every one of the gunshots pops to all the scenes that have something screwy coming out of Copley in the background. Indeed, "Free Fire" has a slick gloss that none of Wheatley’s previous films particularly went for, and when that’s combined with his natural tendency to go straight for the good stuff, it makes it very easy to jump on and enjoy the ride. It’s tougher than it looks to make a movie entirely out of the good bits, but this one comes awful close.

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originally posted: 01/27/17 15:32:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Monster Fest For more in the 2016 Monster Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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  21-Apr-2017 (R)
  DVD: 18-Jul-2017

  31-Mar-2017 (15)

  DVD: 18-Jul-2017

Directed by
  Ben Wheatley

Written by
  Amy Jump
  Ben Wheatley

  Brie Larson
  Cillian Murphy
  Armie Hammer
  Sharlto Copley
  Jack Reynor
  Sam Riley

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