Not in a million years did I ever think that I would write the words “Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer steal the film”. Perhaps, “Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer, like twin torpedos, sink another film,” or, “Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer... in the same film? Sweet Jesus, why?” - possibly.
Then, beer in hand on a Sunday evening, I watched Ben Wheatley’s ('High-Rise', 'Kill List') latest film, 'Free Fire'.
Set in Boston in 1978, an arms deal is going down in a deserted warehouse. Brokered by Justine (Brie Larson, ‘Room’), an IRA team headed by Frank (Michael Smiley, ‘The World's End’) with his business partner Chris (Cillian Murphy, ‘Inception’, ‘Batman Begins’) are on the buying side. As “muscle” they've brought with them a couple of low-level criminal friends, Stevo (Sam Riley, ‘Brighton Rock’, ‘Maleficent’) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti, ‘The Martian’), who are far from reliable.
On the selling side is South African arms dealer and "international a-hole" Vern (Sharlto Copley, ‘District 9’, ‘Elysium’), his suave and wisecracking protector Ord (Armie Hammer, ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’) and Vern's right hand man Martin (Babou Ceesay, ‘Eye in the Sky’). What connects all of these individuals is that no-one likes or trusts anyone else.
Along with Gordon (Noah Taylor), one of Vern's van drivers is John Denver-lover Harry (Jack Treynor, ‘Sing Street’) who has very recent, very personal history with Stevo. The fuse is lit and when the two dim-witted thugs meet, things escalate quickly.
Aside from one minor twist halfway in, that's basically it!
Few movies exist solely in the present. You can get flashbacks to the past to explain character motivations or move ahead to give the audience an idea of the stakes. 'Free Fire' doesn't worry about stuff like that. Aside from Steveo and Harry’s conflict, it’s not about what has happened or what will happen – it’s about a bunch of characters stuck in a warehouse, blasting away at each other with pistols and insults at point-blank range. The trade-off for this is that if you're looking for a meticulously detailed plot, this isn't going to be your movie (Wheatley has cited video games such as Minecraft and Counter Strike as inspiration).
However, what there is of it is enormously entertaining. Played ostensibly for laughs, with very black humour and gunfire punctuating every sentence, some of the characters - notably those played by Armie Hammer and Sam Riley - have some genuinely hilarious dialogue.
Sharlto Copley's South African accent automatically makes him sound funnier than the other actors but there is no doubt that Copley's Vernon gets the majority of the film's quips, and he absolutely revels in them.
Incredibly, the man who steals the film from everyone else in this talented cast is serial over-actor Sharlto Copley as Vernon, an arms dealer who runs his mouth way too much. His South African accent automatically makes him sound funnier than the other actors, but there is no doubt that Copley's Vernon gets the majority of the film's quips, and he absolutely revels in them.
The soundtrack, put together by Geoff Barrow (of UK trip-hop group Portishead) and Ben Salisbury, involves 1970s classics by Credence Clearwater Revival and The Real Kids, and it's hammered out at top volume over the action. 'Annie’s Song' by John Denver soundtracks a particularly gory moment.
While some may not approve of the levels of violence in the film, it is all done in a highly cartoonish way - everyone seems to get shot multiple times, yet are still active and mobile. All of this makes criticism of the performances something of a waste of time, as the film is a smorgasbord of over-acting, scenery-chewing and English actors using the hammiest, juiciest American accents. Surprisingly, it's Oscar winner Brie Larson who is the weakest link, simply by playing her character too straight amongst the craziness.
Yes, ‘Free Fire’ is one-dimensional. Yes, it’s basically the four-way gun battle from the end of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, elongated to 90-minutes, with Tarantino-esque dialogue sprinkled on top. Yes, it is virtually impossible to feel empathy with any of the characters, as they are all universally loathsome. However, it is a movie whose flaws are totally forgivable based on the characterisation, actors who are clearly relishing their roles, and a cracking good script by long-term collaborators Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump.
Tight as ‘Free Fire’ is within its 90-minute running time, I doubt you will be bored. This is very fun stuff. Add or subtract an extra half-star depending on the number of beers you take into the cinema with you.