' ' Cinema Romantico: Free Fire

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Free Fire

It’s tempting to deem Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire” as derivative of or an homage to, or both, Quentin Tarantino, given how it revolves around a drawn-out gun battle, a la “Reservoir Dogs” or a la the conclusion of the Q.T.-penned “True Romance.” A Tarantino film, however, typically devotes just as much time to oddball characters and colorful dialogue. In fact, “Inglorious Basterds”, in its most prominent gun battle, staged in an underground bar, almost entirely dispensed with gunfire, setting aside about 15 seconds for its hail of bullets and devoting the rest of the scene’s formidable run time to dramatically escalating chit-chat. “Free Fire” has some build up, and it has a couple oddball characters, and a smattering of colorful dialogue, but mostly it has, as the title implies, gunfire. Running ninety minutes, roughly sixty of those are comprised of gunfire, or breaths and movements between gunfire, This, however, is not quite the operatic gun fu of John Woo, more like the sword fight of “Rob Roy” with guns, halting and often exhausting.

“Free Fire” opens with its swath of characters en route to an arms deal. It is the late 70s and two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), yearn to purchase a smattering of weapons from Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and associates through two intermediaries, Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). The movie mostly just lets these characters get by on whatever air the actors impart, though Vernon, by far the most vibrantly rendered (and played), does get a single solid descriptive line spoken by someone else – “He was misdiagnosed as a childhood prodigy and never got over it” – which you wish Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump thought to provide each character. That lack of personality inevitably yields substandard emotional attachments. True, Stevo (Sam Riley), something of a hired hand for the IRA, is established as having abused the female cousin of Harry (Jack Reynor), who is in league with Vernon and seeks justice for the abused when he sees Stevo, but both men prove equally unsympathetic, as does everyone else really, which isn’t a bad thing, per se, but means that Wheatley is asking us to take this ride simply on the merits of style.

For a while, for the most part, he succeeds. If these sorts of gun battles are often dripping in machismo, it’s pretty funny just how emptily Wheatley renders all that machismo, the lead-up to the gunfight in this abandoned warehouse filled with all sorts of preening and comically offset by a palpable air of desperate conflict avoidance. Why even when Harry recognizes Stevo and goes after him, everyone tries to calm everyone else down, both sides retreating to their corners, Chris and Frank even walloping Stevo themselves as a show of good faith. That Harry shoots at Stevo anyway goes without saying, though even then the gaggle comes across unenthusiastic as Wheatley nicely utilizes slow motion in this moment to capture the “We’re really doing this?” agony stretching across each participant’s face as they scramble for cover.

Initially the gun battle barely is one, at least in terms of how we moviegoers are conditioned to think about them, with each person shielding his or her self behind some barrier and popping off a few shots here and there, as if not trying so hard might still allow for de-escalation. Eventually, of course, this multi-person semi-faceoff will have to get ramped up, and when it does the strain of shock value begins to show. It’s not necessarily that the respective prominence of names in the cast generally correlates to the live/die order because that can be offset with a little spit and polish, but that the payoffs are substandard, particularly the last shot which is less a twist than an incredibly pat “Well obviously.” Wheatley’s ideas for action, meanwhile, are typical action movie stock-in-trade, fireballs and brutal deaths scored to pop music, the latter seeking, I think, to turn something earnest into something nihilistic except that the film’s own inherent nihilism renders this attempt moot.

Wheatley and Jump’s editing tends toward the frenetic, as it typically does these days for action movies, with myriad quick cuts between characters, which isn’t so bad in the beginning, not merely as a means to drum up suspense but to give us plenty of time with each character to allow us to differentiate as the action escalates. Yet even as the editing gives us time with the people, it never gives us time with the space, forgoing so much as one wide shot to establish the warehouse’s layout to provide bearings. Perhaps this is intended to underscore the characters’ confusion, except that in the heat of battle everyone possesses awareness of just where they need to go, whether to find a ringing phone to try and summon backup, or just where to pop out from behind various barricades for shots at their adversaries. And by refusing to make the space plain, everything just sort of devolves into a non-logistical snarl, underlining the movie itself, one in which its attitude toward the gunfight seems to mirror its own characters – as in, do we have to?

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