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Free Fire

I’d like to start by talking about a little movie called Shoot ‘Em Up. Speaking as one of the two dozen people who first saw that movie on the big screen in 2007, I say without a trace of sarcasm that it’s not only one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasure movies — it’s my all-time favorite action film. I don’t just love that movie for its shameless sense of humor, its subtle commentary on fascination with guns, its endless supply of groan-worthy one-liners, or its utterly brainless plot.

No, what I really love about that movie is the creativity that went into every stunt and every kill. We’ve got no shortage of movies with paper-thin plots and hailstorms of bullets, but we’ve only got one movie with a shootout happening while everyone’s in freefall off a plane. Show me another movie with the oil slick slide, the dive between windshields, or so many gruesome kills with a goddamn carrot. Shit, remember when Drive Angry (another one of my all-time action favorites) came out and everyone was all impressed that Nic Cage got to have a shootout in the middle of a sex scene? I was that guy in the back, going “BITCH, PLEASE!

So when I first heard about Free Fire, a nonstop shootout between so many talented actors trying to kill each other, my first and only thought was “Why the fuck am I not watching that right now?” I’ve been salivating over the trailers and posters for so long that it felt like the film would never stop “Coming Soon”. Now that the movie is finally here, I can report that it was quite different from what I was expecting. And it doesn’t suck.

Our stage is an abandoned factory in Boston at some vague point in the 1970s. The premise is centered around an arms deal with the IRA. The buyers are primarily led by Chris and Frank (respectively played by Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley), with assistance from two bumbling dumbasses named Stevo and Bernie (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti). The seller is South African sleazeball Vernon (Sharlto Copley), alongside right-hand man Martin (Babou Ceesay) with paid stooges Gordon and Harry (Noah Taylor and an unrecognizable Jack Reynor). Last but not least are Justine and Ord (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer), the two middlemen who’ve brokered this deal and work to keep the transaction peaceful between the two parties involved.

This is easier said than done, as everyone has their own disagreements and agendas, both professional and personal. All of that comes unspooled when Stevo and Harry cross paths by pure coincidence and a vicious blood feud between them (It’s a long story.) results in shots getting fired.

The central “gimmick” of the action here is that there are no superhumans in this cast. Granted, there will always be some suspension of disbelief with regards to mag capacities, characters’ accuracies, which wounds are more life-threatening than others, and so on. But this film made a notable effort at keeping suspension of disbelief to a minimum. While these characters may be professional criminals, none of them are indestructible killing machines on par with James Bond, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, John Wick, Jack Reacher, Dom Torretto and his gang… I could keep on listing examples all day, but you get the idea.

The point is that when these characters get shot, it clearly fucking hurts. Moreover, where the bullet lands only determines how long it takes to bleed out and die. It’s panic and pandemonium as they all limp and drag themselves to cover, tending to their wounds and counting bullets while trying to keep track of who’s where and doing what.

The bad news is, it’s chaos. It’s incredibly difficult to keep track of all the different characters and who’s trying to kill whom for what purpose. We don’t even have the benefit of clear-cut “good guys” or “bad guys”, as it’s made abundantly clear from the outset that every single one of them is a different breed of scumbag. Keeping track of the characters is also difficult, as the camera often shakes liberally and no editor could have been up to such a monumental task as this.

But the good news is, it’s chaos.

The whole film is unpredictable from start to finish. Even in the quieter moments, there’s a powerful underlying tension as we wait for the next shot to fire and the carnage to start anew. Moreover, the characters are all a delight to watch not only because I wanted to see how they all die, but also because I wanted to see which one would be the next to stir up the hornet’s nest and how.

Of course the performances themselves are delightful as well. Brie Larson turns in another performance with her signature brand of feminist power, which is even more notable in such a notoriously chauvinistic time and place. Armie Hammer is another highlight, proving once again that he’s far more capable as a supporting player than a leading man. Then there’s Vernon, a preening unhinged egomaniac as only Sharlto Copley could deliver. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sam Riley. I don’t know what it is about Riley, but he’s got a certain kind of backpfeifengesicht, such that I found it hugely refreshing to see this character get the living shit beaten out of him. He should play universally hated fuckwits more often.

But what’s really noteworthy about the film, the action, and the characters is in how they manage to effectively bottle adrenaline. After all, this is very much the kind of incomprehensible scenario — in which nobody knows what’s going on, explosions are going off every which way, and there’s no telling when your weapon might fail or your injuries become fatal — that the autonomic nervous system was made for. When that “fight or flight” kicks in, it creates a rush of energy that this film manages to capture beautifully.

The aggressively minimal score is a huge part of that. Vast stretches of the film are presented entirely without music, which only highlights the mayhem of so many bullets and footsteps going in all different directions. And that’s when the scene isn’t completely silent, which is somehow even more terrifying. Even when the film does have a score, it’s a kind of jazz that — again — only serves to highlight how loud and unpredictable the action is.

You’d think that the music would be a highlight of the film, given how its ’70s setting was a veritable golden age of music. Yet the only ’70s artist whose music is prominently featured is… wait for it… John Denver. While the rest of the music (and pretty much everything else in the movie, really) leans hard into the general sense of blood-soaked anarchy, Denver’s music is so far removed from “blood-soaked anarchy” that this one jarring element makes for a genius comic touch. In fact, the whole film has a great sense of humor, with some funny lines and sight gags throughout. A particular highlight comes when certain characters run out of ammo and resort to throwing debris. One of them even throws a goddamn typewriter, complete with a perfectly timed “ching!” for that extra comic punch.

For better or worse, Free Fire is 90 minutes of pure chaos. It’s entirely up for debate whether that means an incomprehensible and inconsequential mess, or an exciting action romp in which anything could happen. While I’m partial to heavily stylized action scenes with creative stunts that I could never see anywhere else, I’m okay with the film’s far more grounded approach as it delivers a superior sense of tension and a far greater adrenaline rush.

I’m giving this a full recommendation, primarily because it’s still better and more interesting than most of the other new wide releases we’ve gotten in the past couple of weeks. You won’t be missing anything if you wait for DVD, but I’d definitely recommend giving it a watch in any event.

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