Have an itch to see a movie about a gunfight, the whole gunfight and nothing but the gunfight? Search no more, for Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump have the movie for you: twenty minutes of angry crooks in conference, and then seventy minutes of non-stop shootin,’ with no annoying plot context or character depth to get in the way. Just say ‘Bang Bang I shot you down,’ and then play it in a loop, ad infinitum.
2017 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 90 min. / Street Date July 18, 2017 / 24.99
Starring: Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Mark Monero, Patrick Bergin, Enzo Cilenti, Tom Davis.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose
Film Editors: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Original Music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury
Written by Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Produced by Andy Starke
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Many critics fairly well loved Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s High-Rise (2015), a dystopian thriller adapted from J.G. Ballard and set in a 1970s residential tower, in which various affluent but unstable professionals and high-lifers prove modern civilization a sham by reverting to selfish anarchy and bringing about a community-code apocalypse. It’s sort of a Miracle Mile without the nuclear war, but with Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss.
Wheatley and Jump’s follow-up film isn’t nearly as clever, and in fact seems a big step backward in their series of violent, funny action satires. Not that it isn’t well done: many outlets rate it near the top of Wheatley’s filmic output as a writer-director. Free Fire is rather staggering in its simplicity, with a story that’s been likened to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Now normally that’s a slam, as Tarantino imitators are not exactly respected. Both Reservoir and Fire feature a drawn-out confrontation between crooks in an isolated, large space. Tarantino’s particular high wire storytelling trick is to set up the kind of Mexican standoff situation that by rights should only last a few seconds, and use clever writing and dialogue to draw it out to absurd length. It’s the old gun-to-the-head setup: once the stakes have been pushed that high in a standard show, with all the alternatives to violence expended, there’s usually no more drama to be had. Tarantino has made a career out of pushing the edge of that envelope. He often mixes things up by taking a flippant attitude toward continuity, telling a story not just in an odd order, but from the inside- out or both ends toward the middle. That’s an oversimplification and not a slam – Tarantino’s pictures usually feel so inspired that we smile indulgently instead of lose patience. We’re having a great time. Quentin should just avoid snowbound cabins.
Free Fire starts with a solid standard opening — a dozen hardened professional criminals get together to conduct an arms sale tradeoff. But they’re a bunch of wacko losers from the start, and their number includes several loose cannons of the stupid hothead variety. A pack of Irishmen show up to buy guns from what seem to be South Africans, although nobody wants to properly identify themselves. Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy & Michael Smiley) pretty much have things under control, but the first beef is that the guns delivered are AR-47’s, not M-16s as agreed. Everybody gets up at arms over this, especially the somewhat freakish South African gun-seller Vern (Sharlto Copley), a preening ignoramus in an ugly blue sports jacket, who acts as if he’s the only pro among fools. Vern’s associates are Martin (Babou Ceesay), a button-down accountant type, and Harry (Jack Reynor), a simmering hothead who just doesn’t give a damn.
The opening at a disused factory setup is awfully familiar, with trucking shots of the hoods walking in formation a la Reservoir Dogs. The dialogue contains a lot snappy lines but mostly obscenities, to establish ‘realism.’ But the mood isn’t quite right — instead of Tarantino’s loose hipster slickness, with disarmingly clever dialogue, the zingers tend to be isolated, show-off lines. Several people want to be comedians. Others are too invested in pulling off the deal and walking away with a feeling of superiority. It’s sort of a Howard Hawks – John Carpenter vibe, except there are too many clowns on the varsity bench. More seriously for our overall interest, nobody emerges that we really like.
The best smart-talk is spoken by Ord (Armie Hammer), a tall, handsome bearded munitions middleman working on commission. Ord’s initial remarks are meant to disarm hostilities and keep all parties focused on a happy-face clean transaction. Accompanying Ord for some reason is Justine (Brie Larson), a woman with an interesting blend of tough-girl and nice girl qualities. Justine and Chris strike sparks, as they know each other from before; Chris asks her out after the sale, she says no but immediately backtracks. It’s not a good idea to lose focus at a time like this.
It almost doesn’t matter, as there are too many maniacs in the stew. The combined personalities are a chemical combination almost sure to spark spontaneous combustion. One of Chris’s cohorts is Stevo (Sam Riley), an impossibly thickheaded and utterly unreliable galoot recovering from a beating he took the night before. When Harry sees Stevo he almost goes ballistic — the incident last night had something to do with Stevo attacking Harry’s sister with a broken bottle. Fighting words escalate until shots ring out and everybody dives for cover. Any hope of a sane transaction is dashed as various hoods try and fail to grab the suitcase with the loot. Within a couple of minutes most of the twelve-odd people present are wounded. All have brought guns. What’s worse, someone apparently made a side deal to murder everybody and take the money — at least one sniper, thinking he’s been cued, opens fire. Everybody’s shooting. Some people offer to hold fire for a truce, but nobody’s buying. Others try to make it to a phone in an office, to call for assistance.
That’s more or less at the 25-minute mark. From then on the show is just one extended shoot-out, with most of the participants crawling in the dirt. This is one hell of a resilient bunch of gunmen (and woman). After a few jokes about only being nicked, literally everyone is in pain, but too adrenalized to go into shock. It’s the old conundrum: anecdotal evidence proves that under extreme circumstances people can do an awful lot when wounded, especially soldiers. Then again, in the reality I know a modest cut with a cheese knife will put an ordinary person out of action. Much of Free Fire sees wounded comrades hunkered down and trying to catch their breath, like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in the final moments of The Wild Bunch. Only these guys are laughing.
Wheatley and Jump want to milk the extreme case, and in terms of simple storytelling, it plays. The direction and camerawork are exciting. Even though the spatial relationships between enemies could be clearer, the combatants are fairly easy to keep straight. Nobody performs any miracles of sharpshooting, quite the opposite. The gunfire is fairly constant for a good half hour, making us wonder how any of them walked into the factory so nonchalantly, considering the estimated weight of the ammo they had to be carrying on their persons. True, a few of the combatants switch to the boxes of automatic rifles that are open all around them (and are apparently ready to load and fire).
Who gets shot, who gets killed and who makes the sick jokes is halfway engaging, but dramatically Free Fire goes inert when the shooting starts. There’s little or nothing more to be learned about these people. We get a few interesting reversals vis-a-vis who double-crosses whom, and we’re interested to find out if Justine and Chris will form a team. The show goes in for one graphic gross-out shot involving a moving truck and a wounded hood, and some ‘additional extravagant mayhem’ with fire is worked into the mix. Otherwise the appeal is mainly going to be with action fans pining for a movie that’s not much different than a First-Person shooter video game, the kind of guys for whom the maximum thrill is imagining themselves making life or death decisions with a gun in their hand.
When the shooting starts the movie stops following the QT Reservoir Dogs playbook and switches over to the John Carpenter playbook for Assault on Precinct 13. That cartoonish crime picture begins well, because Carpenter is terrific at establishing setups. He’s do good in Assault that we buy his utterly nonsensical all-purpose evil gang, the one with one black, one Chicano, one white revolutionary, etc. (‘It’s a rainbow coalition!’) Anyway, when the shooting starts in Assault the movie is over except for the mechanics of guns and bullets. It begins with unlimited options but ends up being just about the gunfire.
Tarantino would make the shootout last five seconds, or it would take place half off-screen. He knows that such things are more violent and vicious in anticipation, not with a drawn-out battle we’ve seen umpteen zillion times.
Wheatley and Jump’s characters are okay but there’s nobody we really care about. Most of the cast members are good actors who’ve been around the track a few times. Some perhaps wish they could land a role that precipitates a second career breakthrough; although all act up a storm none stands out. Cillian Murphy is in the right spot but never seems heroic in the slightest; the script makes a point of a ‘universal pragmatism’ that forbids anybody acting in anything other than self-interest. Armie Hammer gets the best lines. His Ord has poise, and is the only one able to keep what’s happening in perspective. But he’s also as insincere as a Real Estate shark, so we don’t like him either.
That leaves Brie Larson’s Justine, who being the girl is going to get special attention whether innocent or guilty. As it turns out, Justine is ready to make harsh choices as well. Remember Laurie Zimmer, the exaggerated ‘Howard Hawks girl’ in Assault on Precinct 13,” the one who has fun pretending she’s Lauren Bacall or Joanne Dru? She and Justine share some qualities, but our interest in Justine only goes so far because we know so little about her. Justine has one of the film’s better lines. Asked which side she’s on, she responds, “I’m I-I-F-M: In It For Myself.”
The carnage in High-Rise has a satirical foundation, with the sour message that society is becoming unworkable. The mayhem here is never about anything bigger than itself, which some people will translate as Unpretentious. Wheatley’s soundtrack has some nice tunes, but it does seem a transparent Tarantino affectation when he brings in discordant / appropriate pop music at odd times. John Denver and Credence Clearwater echo around the factory. Some of Ord’s snide, oddball reactions are fairly disarming. Like I say, plenty of people will think this shooting-gallery template for movie fun can’t be beat. As much as I liked the writing and performances, as soon as I realized what was up, that the meal would be four courses of the same thing, I glazed over.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray of Free Fire is a good-looking encoding of this well-shot picture. “All tech specs are above par” would be the verdict of an old Variety review. I had to read somebody else’s criticism to learn that we don’t see too many ejected cartridges flying, when the air ought to be thick with them — they should be able to locate enemy shooters by the fountains of brass casings popping up. Ms Larson’s Brie starts well, weathering comments about gaining weight. She looks exceedingly good covered in dirt and blood as she maintains her composure under the psychic pressure and various bullet holes, none of which are as debilitating as they ought to be.
Lionsgate gives the disc a commentary with Ben Wheatley and a promo-type featurette. One of the main posters for this show is a daisy-chain Photoshop job showing characters aiming in a circle, but not exactly at each other. I’ll bet the advertising censors wouldn’t let the five guns in the image be pointed directly at five heads. I found the disc menu to be particularly useful — it’s a roundup of character images, with their names spelled out clearly. It proved very useful in being sure of the identities of all the actors.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good – Minus
Supplements: Commmentary with Ben Wheatley, featurette.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 2, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson