Free Fire

Year: 2016
Studio: Film4
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump/Bean Wheatley
Cast: Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Michael Smiley, Sharlto Copley, Noah Taylor

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most effective. The entire premise of this film can be summed up in the description 'arms deal in abandoned warehouse with multiple dirtbags goes wrong, shootout ensues, bodies pile up'.

To introduce and talk about the characters, from Armie Hammer's charming/sleazebag bagman or Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley's IRA terrorists to Sharlto Copley's talkative, weaselly South African arms trader is almost redundant. The film sets up which side they're on (a fairly movable feast at times) so when the bullets start flying you know who's after who, and sets them to it.

Writer/director Ben Wheatley manages one impressive trick with the movie, and that's conveying the geography of the warehouse set effectively so that even though most of the movie consists of people on the ground or crouched behind things hiding from each other, it's still an effective thriller, given a comic edge because of the characters and their interplay.

You do have to look past a single flaw to accept all that (the Hollywood gun wound rulebook, in which every major character can take several bullets to the legs, arms or shoulders and be reduced to only 50 percent of the ability to walk, talk and shoot back for long periods), but if you can do that, you'll go with it.

When two gangs – neither of which come across as very trustworthy – meet to discuss the terms of an underground automatic weapons sale, it turns out one of the underlings on each crew knows each other from a very recent skirmish between them.

When recognition comes and tempers boil over, the tension inherent in the steamy, dirty, yellowed and sodium-arc lit warehouse snaps and itchy trigger fingers let fly.

Everyone's trying to get away with their head intact and get the other guy, get to a phone in the upstairs office or stay out of the way of the two hired snipers that show up at some unidentified double-crosser's behest, and those conflicting needs fill a very tight and clipped hour or so. It's no more and no less than the poster image marketing the movie seemed to promise, of a group of people all pointing guns at each other.

Wheatley situates the film in the 70s or early 80s, letting the characters' dress, hairstyles and attitudes adopt a certain posture that further conveys what creeps they all are, further cementing the greasy, cigarette smoke-tinged air of the surroundings and set-up.

It's a good technical achievement, a fairly rollicking story that's as much about laughs as it is about constant action, and has the most hiply ironic use of John Denver you've heard in a long time. Don't expect much (because there's not much there), and you'll have a perfectly fine time.

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