Friday, April 21, 2017

'Free Fire' review

Note: This is a re-publication of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Ben Wheatley's Free Fire is in American theaters nationwide today.

Movie trailers are an essential part of the filmgoing experience these days, and it has gotten to the point where I think that people look forward to trailers almost as much as the films themselves. Over the last few months, the Twitter account TrailerTrack has become one of the best sources of info for when the most anticipated trailers will hit the web. The account has gained popularity for accurately reporting info on the trailers for DunkirkArrival, Passengers and more, and they've been incredibly reliable from the start. I first heard of Ben Wheatley's Free Fire when TrailerTrack reported that the first trailer would screen with Swiss Army Man, and ever since that point, the film has been one of my most anticipated upcoming releases. I saw the electrifying, funny trailer with the aforementioned Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, and my anticipation only grew. However, the Free Fire trailer took on a sort of mystical status in the TrailerTrack world, as A24 never released it online despite having it play in theaters for months. I rapidly searched for more information on the film, yet it was nowhere to be found. But when I heard that Wheatley and the studio would be taking the dark comedy to the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival, it immediately became the movie that I absolutely had to see during my time in the Great White North.

With a talented cast, a high-concept story, and a period energy that appeared to be a cross between Tarantino and Scorsese, there were plenty of reasons to be excited for Free Fire. But Ben Wheatley had been hit-or-miss with critics in the past, and as excited as I was, I did feel like there was a chance that this film could fall flat out of the gate. Thankfully, that is very, very far from the case. Free Fire is a profoundly anarchic action movie blast, a darkly comic hellstorm of bullets and one-liners that stands as the most fun I had at TIFF. Wheatley has diluted the action movie to its essence and delivered a 90-minute orgy of insnae violence and gleeful humor. Confined to one complex location, Free Fire's roller-coaster ride of continuous mayhem is a dazzling feat of genre filmmaking that doubles as a deranged shootout for the ages.

Set in Boston in 1978, Free Fire centers around an arms deal between a group of IRA members and a highly influential crime syndicate. The group of Irish nationalists- led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley)- are in the market to purchase several M16's from Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a powerful gangster. With the help of two powerful players on the Boston crime scene, Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer), the deal is set up and the two groups agree to meet in a warehouse at night to hammer out a deal. The IRA bring along their local lackeys (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti) to help with the merchandise, and the Boston syndicate bring their lower-level assistants (Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor) as well, which quickly becomes a major problem for reasons I won't spoil here. With everybody holed up in one location, armed to the deal with a wide range of weapons, it's safe to say that things go south rather quickly. But as bullets fly and the bodies pile up, the gangs realize that something even more sinister may be going on.

If there's one complaint to be waged against Free Fire, it's that there isn't a whole hell of a lot to the story. The movie doesn't have much in the way of complicated plot dynamics or character development, and even a few of the twists that do pop up feel muddled. But at the same time, the simplicity is pretty much what makes this movie work. Ben Wheatley essentially puts a group of idiots in a room and watches them kill each other. Even the smart characters in Free Fire have the IQ of a 10-year old, and it makes the movie a refreshing change of pace from its predecessors. In most films like this, all of the characters are smart and cunning, constantly trying to think their way out of a situation by duping the other people in a room. In Free Fire, pretty much every character is thinking out loud, spouting off all kinds of idiotic lunacy as they settle their problems the only way they know how- with a barrage of bullets.

Having one of the most talented casts in recent memory certainly helps things, and it's a pure delight to watch them go to work. It's an impressive mix of character actors and major superstars, and they all get a chance to shine in this film. There's no real lead, but if there's one consensus pick for the standout performance, it's probably Armie Hammer. He's been typecast as an old-fashioned Hollywood star for years, and it's great to see him flip things around and play a different kind of character. This is the funniest Hammer has ever been, and his narcissistic, charming, pot-smoking criminal associate is one of the highlights of the film. Sharlto Copley shines as well as the cowardly Vern, a fashion-obsessed numbskull of a gangster who gets himself into some hairy situations. Copley has always played his characters at a manic pitch, which has sometimes felt like a miscalculation. Here, it's perfect for the tone that Wheatley has created, and he has some absolutely brilliant moments.

Sam Riley and Jack Reynor are also terrific as fierce adversaries, continuing to prove that they both have plenty to offer in these kinds of supporting roles. Riley's Stevo is both despicable and lovable, which is no small feat. And Reynor, after the surprise success of his turn in Sing Street earlier in the year, continues to prove that he has endless charisma. Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley try to play the "straight men" in the cast, but even they get to have some fun firing off one-liners as the bullets whiz around the room. Surprisingly, Brie Larson's role is fairly small, although I have a feeling this movie was made well before the release of Room. She's great at playing a badass, no-nonsense anti-heroine, and Justine emerges as one of the most fascinating players in the movie. Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti also have excellent moments in supporting roles.

As great as this cast is, Free Fire would be impossible without the directorial innovation of Wheatley and the screenwriting wisdom of his co-writer and partner, Amy Jump. In fact, I firmly believe that the non-stop sensual assault of the shootout would be a bit harder to swallow if not for the humor that is injected into every moment of this film (in the post-screening Q&A, Wheatley credited Jump for all the humor and fun stuff). The script is compact and concise, firmly establishing the nature of each of the characters without dwelling on it. Ord is a smooth-talking swindler, Stevo is an addicted coward, Chris always plays it straight, and so on. We get all of this information just as the film begins, and as the firestorm of violence erupts, these simple personality details are important. I would compare the script to Reservoir Dogs or another similar Tarantino screenplay, but the truth is, it's a lot more open with its humor than those films. It's a different beast altogether.

Wheatley makes full use of the 1970s setting, delivering a product that is fully devoted to its sense of grimy, dirty grittiness. Nobody stays clean during this film, and every star is covered in a unique mix of dirt and gore by the end of it. Wheatley drags the camera through the mud as well, bouncing back and forth during the fight scenes with an invigorating sense of cinematic energy that will send shockwaves through your system. He complements this with occasional moments of absurdist flair, such as a jarring tracking shot of a canister being fired through the air at full-speed. The film has moments like this sprinkled throughout, and it keeps you on your toes for the whole runtime.

With Free Fire, Wheatley has delivered a manic burst of action cinema that serves as a joyous shot of delicious adrenaline. It's a jaw-dropping feat of brutal comedic lunacy, and it's definitely headed for cult status, which some seem to view as a bad thing (I certainly don't). If you read the tagline "feature length shootout with bursts of comedy" and were intrigued by that concept, you're almost certain to adore this movie. I was in sheer awe of its bullet-riddled audacity, and it's a movie that I know I'll revisit over and over again. Bonkers, beautifully choreographed, and entertaining as hell, Free Fire is just a spectacularly good time. It's one of the fastest, funniest action movies I've seen in a long time.

Free Fire will hit theaters in 2017.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.4/10)

Images courtesy of A24

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