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Gunning for cult status

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Free Fire (15)
Running time 1hr 30min
Rating: ***

FREE Fire’s central conceit comes off like the set-up of a bad Irish joke. What happens when you put a pair (Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy) of IRA hard-cases in a room with the associates of a Rhodesian arms dealer (Sharlto Copley) with a back-garden “the size of [their] country”? Needless to say, the results aren’t pretty, though director Ben Wheatley is playing for post-ironic chuckles,
if not outright laughs. The ‘70s’ costume design alone is hard to take seriously (the cast look like they’ve got lost off-stage at a botched disco tribute event), but this isn’t the sort of film you watch for its plot, nor its brains – it’s an action flick in the most literal sense, an extended set-piece with its tongue fixed firmly in its bruised, bloodied cheek.

As with all of Wheatley’s movies, from the Kubrickian extravagance of High-Rise to the visceral grit of Kill List and A Field in England’s waking nightmare, he’s out for cult status here – the first act’s talking shop is positively gunning for quotability. This sort of self-conscious screenplay might otherwise have erred on the desperate side, but Wheatley is an able filmmaker, with a talent for kitting preposterousness out in mood and style. The photography’s good, if not great; the caper is greatly helped along by the vim and gall of the cast, a dramatic unit packing the cumulative energy of a stick of TNT (and, by God, this thing EXPLODES …). Michael Smiley, a veteran Wheatley collaborator, is watchable as ever, while Brie Larson, fast becoming a blockbuster staple, makes fireworks of an otherwise mediocre role. ‘Mediocre’ being the byword here, because Free Fire is going to fall apart the minute one refuses to be awed by Wheatley’s expert staging, or by the script’s bravado, or by the film’s more singularly brutal sections (and that’s saying something, because the director’s most definitely toned down his signature violence this time around – the demands of the US market might have something to do with it?). In the long run, these characters amount to little more than gimmicks, archetypes; though the film just about pulls off the unlikely feat of having us believe in its setting, you’ll forget this particular batch of ne’er-do-wells as soon as the credits roll. Sharlto Copley nails his dialogue, with lines that sound like they’ve been poached from a Grand Theft Auto cutscene, but there’s little more to his part than the South African accent and his machine-gun gusto. Wheatley confuses flippancy with incisiveness; while there’s some sharp humour along the way, it’s mixed in with a lot of flat, Thursday-night-at-the-comedy-club material.

Some have dismissed Free Fire as a Reservoir Dogs clone, decidedly past its sell-by date (hint: it’s set in a warehouse and features dodgy goings-on); if that was, indeed, Wheatley’s actual pitch (doubtful), it’s as bold and nonchalant a rip-off as has graced the silver screen of late. Though it’s awfully jagged, a touch too ambitious for its own good, there’s genre cool, and more than a hint of ingenuity, amid the noise and the chaos – just don’t give what you see too much thought …

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