STYLISH yet scruffy, chaotic yet expertly-choreographed, violent yet humorous, Free Fire is a mass of contradictions — and there’s a lot to like about that.
Staffed by a cast of rising and established stars and blessed with a healthy helping of wit amid the flying bullets, this shootout showdown thriller keeps you guessing until the final shot.
The premise is simple: at some point in the 1970s, no-nonsense Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) and their henchman rock up at a derelict dockside warehouse to buy a shipment of illicit arms for the IRA from oily South African dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), courtesy of middlemen Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer).
An already-tense situation goes south when insults escalate into shots being fired and a stand-off ensues.
Uneasy alliances are formed and broken as the different wide-lapelled parties battle it out, with aspirations of running off with a suitcase of money or a pile of guns and ammo playing second fiddle to the hope simply of escaping alive.
At times the bang-bang-quiet-bang rhythm threatens to stray into shoot-em-up video game territory and the generally unappealing characters — they are after all, gun runners — don’t exactly have you rooting for their cause.
But there’s something strangely addictive about the staccato action and Hammer, Murphy and Larson in particular are never less than watchable, the last two even finding time for a little light flirting amid the arms dealing and fighting for survival.
There are shades of Tarantino in the showdown scenario and warehouse setting the mark of Martin Scorsese (on executive producer duties here) is apparent, but director Ben Wheatley dials down the style by having his cast get literally down in the dirt.
He takes his camera down to the characters’ level, too, as they crawl around the dusty warehouse floor.
The showdown — punctuated by endless volleys of cursing — unfolds in real time, like a vicious game of Laser Quest where not running out of ammo and finding the right cover is life-or-death.
The criminals may start out suited, booted and smart-talking, but they end up bloodied, rattled and ruined — where some films glamorise and trivialise violence, the impact of every shot here is shown and felt.
Perhaps the best metaphor for Free Fire is the apparel Sam Riley’s druggie henchman Stevo, a satin bomber jacket which may have resembled Ryan Gosling’s cool kitsch dragon jacket from Drive in a previous life but now looks rumbled and stained.
The message: it’s not how you start out that matters — it’s how you end up.
Some critics are talking Free Fire up as a cult classic in the making.
I think that’s going too far, as it’s unlikely to inspire repeat viewings, but give me this down and dirty shootout over meat-headed CGI superheros any day.