Monday, May 1, 2017

Free Fire

I think we've all heard the joke about action movies in which the bad guys shooting countless rounds and can't hit the hero while all the good guy has to do is point and shoot and another villain falls over dead. Considering every character in Free Fire (2017) is pretty much a heel, we shouldn't be surprised they're all terrible shots.

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Ben Wheatley, Free Fire concerns itself with an arms deal gone wrong. In 1970s Boston, a couple of IRA operatives, Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), along with Frank's brother Stevo (Sam Riley), and Stevo's friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), go to a warehouse to buy guns. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the seller while the brokers are Ord (Arnie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Things go sour because both sides have brought along people who can't control their emotions.

Shots are fired, people are wounded, and the rest of the movie becomes a violent game of cat and mouse (as well as verbal sparring). Most movies of this type, like Reservoir Dogs, usually build to the big shootout at the end where most if not all the characters are killed.

In Free Fire, the big shootout occurs early on, everyone is hit, but instead of the movie being over, it's just getting warmed up. The characters, bleeding profusely from wounds in their arms and legs, crawl and drag themselves across this dirty, nasty, grimy floor (one character accidentally stabs himself in the palm with a hypodermic needle). All the while, they continue to shoot at each other intermittently and try to negotiate some kind of resolution.

If nothing else, Wheatley deserves credit for a unique spin on a well-worn genre. In a sense, he's applying strict logic to a hard-boiled situation. People get shot, and it hurts. Like, really hurts, enough to severely inconvenience them. Bullets in your arm make it hard to aim and bullets in your leg make it hard to run, and the guy who just shot you is a total asshole about it. This is the kind of movie that has you giggling one minute, wincing the next, and laughing again even as the violence ramps up to almost ridiculous levels.

That's pretty much the plot of the movie. Once the guns start firing and characters start double-crossing each other, it remains in the warehouse for the remainder of its running length. No new ground is tread, either in the movie itself or in its presentation, but it certainly is never boring, and a great cast enlivens the well-worn material.

Sharlto Copley continues to prove he's one of Hollywood's most interesting actors working today with another great performance. In a movie full of bad guys, Vernon is the true out-and-out villain, and Copley gives him appropriate quirkiness (he was misdiagnosed as a child genius and still pretty pissed about it) with mad dog ferocity. After getting shot, he wraps his wounds in soggy cardboard because, as he explains, the bigger risk is infection than the bullet itself.

Murphy, the closest thing to a normal, level-headed good guy, grounds the proceedings, keeping them from getting too outlandish. Larson, the only female cast member, hangs tough with the boys, but the biggest surprise is Hammer. I've never been impressed with him one way or the other before, but Ord is probably my favorite character. As the arms deal broker, he has no allegiance to either side and continues to treat the situation like a normal business deal with himself amused more than anything. He never yells or gets angry. During the fighting, he takes cover to roll a joint.

Wheatley keeps things moving and shoots the action with an immediate, visceral touch, although there were times I lost track spatially of who was where in relation to everyone else.

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