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Thursday, April 27, 2017 12:04 am

Free Fire a slick exercise in nihilism

Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson and Armie Hammer in Free Fire.


While you couldn’t technically call Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire a chamber play, you might be able to get by with referring to it as a pressure chamber movie. Its concept is simple – a limited number of players in a confined space – and its execution slick, professional and all you would want from a mainstream movie. That it has nothing particular to say, I suppose, is part-and-parcel of most films served up for public consumption today, but it’s unsettling nonetheless. That we have become so blasé towards gun violence is hardly new.

Set in late-1970s Boston, a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells convenes in a rundown warehouse by the docks to conduct a piece of business. Seems Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), members of the IRA, want to get their hands on a cache of M-17 assault rifles to help their cause. They’ve brought along bottom-feeders Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley) to help them move their goodies, as well as the comely Justine (Brie Larson), who happens to know the dealer, Vernon (Sharlto Copley). He, in turn, has brought his associate Martin (Babou Ceesay) to help facilitate the deal, as well as Gordon (Noah Taylor) and Harry (Jack Raynor) to do the grunt work, while the dapper and ever-cool Ord (Armie Hammer) serves as the go-between.

Of course, when you have a group of drug-addled criminals with low IQ’s, short tempers, heaps of machismo and scads of guns lying around, trouble’s bound to start. A recent grudge and a smart mouth is all it takes for a bullet-ridden free-for-all to begin, many of the participants firing blindly, with innocents and those less so caught in the crossfire.

Wheatley soon runs into trouble once the mayhem begins, as his grasp of simple spatial orientation seems to be lacking. The action moves so quickly at times that it’s hard to get a handle on who’s shooting at whom as well as where everyone is in relation to one another in this wasteland of a warehouse. Perhaps that was the intended effect – to put us in the shooter’s confused shoes – but it only steadily increases the viewer’s frustration where trying to keep track of who’s still in the game is concerned.

The script by Amy Jump and Wheatley is very clever at times as one loaded bit of dialogue after another zings towards us. (One character is described as having never recovered from been “misdiagnosed as a child genius.”) In the hands of the capable cast, the many barbed lines are delivered with the proper sense of irony and menace. Hammer is a particular standout, remaining calm and cool as the bullets fly, the only one who’s able to accurately assess the situation he’s in as well as a possible way out of it.

The danger with a premise such as this is that it will become a static stale exercise in its restricted setting. Keeping the film at a crisp 90 minutes certainly helps, as does the writers’ ability to introduce a series of logical twists that suddenly redefine the situation. The inclusion of two snipers, who have no allegiance to any of the characters, proves an interesting diversion, as does the introduction of numerous tanks of compressed air, which elevates the carnage to imaginative levels.

To be sure, the film is well acted and, for the most part, ably directed and paced. Yet in the end, this is a nihilistic exercise that revels in its violence. In parading before us characters who we cannot empathize or relate to, Wheatley and Smart are giving us nothing more than targets whose sole purpose is to be dispensed with in the most violent and prolonged manner possible. Yep – Free Fire, the feel-good movie of 2017.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

For a review of Unforgettable, visit the Cinemascoping blog at http://illinoistimes.com.

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