Stupid violence is sent up quite smartly in “Free Fire.”
It would be too much to call it a return to form for director Ben Wheatley and his frequent screenwriting collaborator, Amy Jump, but it is a nice move back to coherent storytelling. While the couple’s last two films, “High-Rise” and “A Field in England,” justifiably have their admirers, those projects’ cussed narrative incontinence felt like abstract detours from Wheatley’s sly, well-plotted earlier genre subversions, such as “Sightseers” and “Kill List.”
“Free Fire,” packed with chaos and surprises though it is, always makes a pulpy kind of sense while delivering barrages of mean-spirited entertainment and a consistent critique of thoughtless mayhem.
The real convention-challenging here resides in the visual plan – plan in this case being a word one is tempted to put quotation marks around or add “if you can call it that” to. Shouldn’t do that, though, because there really is a highly sophisticated shooting strategy that just happens to look like no one was sure where to point the camera.
More on that in a moment, but first the setup:
In 1970s Boston, a group of Irish Republican Army operatives arrange to buy a cache of automatic weapons from a South African arms merchant. The deal goes down in an abandoned waterfront warehouse that still has a lot of junk lying around.
The Irish group, composed of both Northern and Southy blokes, includes Cillian Murphy’s nice guy terrorist Chris, grumpy old Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) and junkie screw-up Stevo (Sam Riley). “District 9’s” Sharlto Copley – who else? – plays the South African Vernon, and his crew boasts the unfortunate membership of Harry (Jack Reynor), who easily loses control and has personal issues with a guy on the IRA team.
The American go-betweens are no-nonsense businesswoman Justine (Brie Larson) and sarcastic preppy Ord (Armie Hammer). When things head south and bullets start ricocheting around the large, enclosed space, each person takes a side on whichever faction seems most convenient for survival. Neither the terrorists nor the gun-runners can rely on Justine or Ord’s loyalty, of course. But as wounds proliferate and the firefight gets reduced to a game of crawling, then slithering, no one can be sure who on their team has their back – or might shoot them in it, either.
The viewer will be similarly disoriented. Usually, in primarily single set bloodbaths – “Reservoir Dogs” comes to mind – the cinematic rule is to carefully define everyone’s position and its relationship to others’ at all times. Wheatley’s go-to camera guy, Laurie Rose, doesn’t seem as concerned with that as he is with just prowling around to capture the coolest, most painful-looking mayhem, while Wheatley and Jump, who edited the film, deconstruct any notion of geographical consistency whenever they can.
Kind of amazingly, they prove that that stuff doesn’t matter….