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In Theaters: FREE FIRE (2017)

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FREE FIRE
(UK - 2017)

Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley. Cast: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Tom Davis, Mark Monero. (R, 90 mins)

A critical and fan favorite who's received so many accolades that he's in danger of becoming the British Ti West, Ben Wheatley has what it takes to be major voice in genre filmmaking and he's been endorsed by the esteemed likes of Martin Scorsese and Edgar Wright. But other than two standout films--2012's beyond misanthropic black comedy SIGHTSEERS and 2013's profoundly unsettling A FIELD IN ENGLAND--the results have been mixed at best. I never understood the critical acclaim and scenester love for his 2011 breakthrough KILL LIST, a film that can only knock you on your ass or even surprise you in the slightest if you're a serious, well-versed film connoisseur who's somehow never heard of THE WICKER MAN. Last year's HIGH-RISE gave Wheatley his largest budget and biggest-name cast yet, but his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel, with its Margaret Thatcher premonitions and themes and ideas seen in so many subsequent things over time, seemed in 2016 like little more than a nice-looking exercise in production design and pointless retro '70s fetishism. With his latest film FREE FIRE, which gets a cosmetic cred boost from an executive producer credit for A FIELD IN ENGLAND fan Scorsese, Wheatley and his wife and regular screenwriting partner Amy Jump offer their take on the 1990s staple of the post-Tarantino crime flick, combined with some retro '70s leftovers from HIGH-RISE.






In 1978 Boston, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) are two IRA members in town to buy guns with the help of local small-time criminals Justine (ROOM Oscar-winner Brie Larson), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Frank's idiot nephew Stevo (Sam Riley). They're all greeted outside an abandoned factory by the sardonic Ord (Armie Hammer), who arranged a meet with South African arms dealer and "international asshole" Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associates Martin (Babou Ceesay), Gordon (Noah Taylor), and Harry (Jack Reynor). Stevo, bruised and battered from a fight he got into the night before after smashing a bottle over a woman's head and being beaten by her cousin, recognizes Harry as that cousin and tries to keep a distance from the negotiations, which are going south when Chris discovers Vernon, aka "Vern & Learn," didn't bring the weapons he ordered, instead trying to push lesser inventory off on him. Tensions escalate but Ord helps cool things down until everything blows up when Harry recognizes Stevo. Pushing and shoving leads to a forced apology from Stevo, but when he ends up boasting about what he did to Harry's cousin, Harry grabs a gun and shoots him, which sends various parties scattering about the main area of the factory as a feature-length gunfight erupts, with the added bonus of two hidden snipers--Howie (Patrick Bergin sighting!) and Jimmy (Mark Monero)--trying to pick off members of both groups for the mystery figure who hired them to abscond with both the guns and the money.


After a 15-minute set-up that includes CCR's "Run Through the Jungle"--apparently now required to be in every Brie Larson movie--being played as the characters walk through the warehouse, FREE FIRE is essentially a 75-minute version of the RESERVOIR DOGS standoff, which is amusing for a few minutes until it devolves into tedium. These buffoons are the worst shots in the history of gunfights, never killing anyone and mainly just clipping arms, legs, and shoulders, sometimes with the help of a ricocheting bullet, and before long everyone's just crawling around trying to get the edge on everyone else. This also leads to a lot of "Fuck you! No, fuck you! Gimme the money! Fuck you!" ad nauseum. It says a lot about the utter obnoxiousness of this character ensemble when Sharlto Copley is playing maybe the third-most annoying of the bunch. Top honors go to Riley's Stevo and Reynor's Harry. Murphy's Chris and Larson's Justine (this was shot two years ago, before ROOM was released) are the most reasonable and tolerable of the criminals, while Hammer's smirking, smartass Ord is obviously meant to be the source of quips that aren't nearly as quotable as Jump and Wheatley think they are.


There's a great '70s Ennio Morricone-goes-prog original score by EX MACHINA composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, a few funny lines that land and a couple of inspired gags--one involving Vernon completely engulfed in flames and using a fire extinguisher on himself, the other involving a van running over a guy's head and splattering it flat while an 8-track blares John Denver's "Annie's Song" from its radio, maybe the most jarringly incongruous use of a song accompanying horrific violence this side of the scalding LAYER CAKE beatdown set to Duran Duran's "Ordinary World"--but FREE FIRE doesn't really have enough to it to sustain even a 90-minute film. It's a throwback to Quentin Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS and Guy Ritchie's LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, with a little of Troy Duffy's cult classic THE BOONDOCK SAINTS with its Boston setting, but in the end, FREE FIRE isn't even on the level of a latecomer like Joe Carnahan's SMOKIN' ACES. It's fine that Wheatley holds those films on a pedestal, but he doesn't really do anything to justify FREE FIRE's existence. It's perfectly watchable and will probably be a Netflix and cable favorite for the next two decades that you end up watching because you can never remember until halfway through that you've already seen it, but it's still a prefab cult movie that doesn't understand cult cred is earned and not instantly granted just because of kitschy music and references to shoulder pads and 8-track tapes. Plus, Wheatley falls into the same trap Duffy did on the lackluster BOONDOCK SAINTS II, mistaking "insufferable assholes yelling and shouting" for "funny."


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