Reel Talk

Free Fire: Machismo Ruins Everything

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We really seem to be in a golden age for action movies. The last couple of years have been resplendent in truly amazing action flicks, which is fantastic news. We’ve finally made it out of the glut of ugly, CGI-filled, boring action flicks that the first half of the decade seemed to adore, and we’re getting some real masterpieces. And one of the most interesting parts of this new trend is the fact that a lot of these movies are telling very simple, yet compelling, stories. Action movies have never really been overly bothered with plot, really just stringing along scenarios that lead to crazy gunfights, but there’s been a recent surge in actions flicks that are beautifully simple. Mad Max Fury Road is literally just about driving somewhere, then driving back, and yet it was handled with such grace and craft that it became one of the best films of the last decade. And while I wouldn’t necessarily say that the movie I’m talking about today, Free Fire, is in the same league as Fury Road, it’s still a great movie. And it has a splendidly simple premise. It’s literally a feature-length stand-off. Which seems like a rather ridiculous idea. It doesn’t seem sustainable. And yet, this movie proves that assumption wrong. Because this is one of the most fun movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Free Fire is about some criminals meeting up in an abandoned factory to make an arms deal. One one side we have Chris and Frank, to members of the IRA who are journeying to America to buy rifles. Along with them is Frank’s idiot brother in law Steve and his buddy Bernie. They’re there to meet their contacts, Justine and Ord, intermediaries who have planned the whole deal. And once they get inside the factory they meet the arms dealers, the flashy Verne, the stoic Martin, and their two lackies Harry and Gordon. Things are pretty tense right from the get-go, with everyone trying to prove that they’re the alpha-male, the toughest guy in the room. But they manage to keep it civil. That is until Harry and Steve realize they know each other. Turns out just a couple nights ago Steve beat up Harry’s cousin so bad she had to go to the hospital after basically attempting to rape her. Harry had beat the hell out of Steve the previous night, but he’d gotten away. And as soon as the two recognize each other, all hell breaks loose. They begin yelling at each other, causing a riff between the two groups. And it all reaches a fever pitch when Harry shoots Steve. He doesn’t kill him, but it escalates things to the point of no return.

The factory suddenly becomes a battleground, with the IRA folks and Verne’s people fighting against each other, trying to survive, while Justine and Ord get caught in the middle. The Irish want the guns and the dealers want the money, but now there’s enough bad blood that they also want the other side killed. What follows is is some of the most inventive and slap-stick gun-fights that I’ve ever seen. The movie is basically a live-action cartoon, with everyone getting shot multiple times and mainly just complaining about it. A series of coincidences occur during the shootout that potentially could upset the balance of power, such as the realization that there’s a phone in the building that could be used to call reinforcements, Justine and Ord’s rapidly changing allegiances, the appearance of another Irishman, and two hitmen who for a long time seem unaffiliated showing up. But in the end none of these things really pan out, and it’s just a matter of time before the various combatants start being whittled down. None of them are going to get out of this in great shape, and that certainly pans out.

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This movie is a goddamn delight. I’ve only seen one film from director Ben Wheatley before, last year’s High-Rise. And I liked that movie quite a bit, it even showed up on my best of the year list. And this movie is very different than High-Rise. They both show that Ben Wheatley has a serious affection for the aesthetics of the 1970’s, but other than that the movies are night and day. High-Rise was a slow and unnerving examination of class warfare, and Free Fire is an absolutely manic and frenetic action/comedy flick. And I adored it. The action in the film is top-notch, showcasing a cavalcade of ridiculous gun-fights. And that action is held up by across the board fantastic performances. Everyone in this movie is tremendous, handling the ridiculous concept and the comedic chops necessarily to make it all work. This is a tremendously silly movie, and everyone here needs to simultaneously be a credible fighter and comedian. And they all nail it. Hell, the movie even made me enjoy a Sharlto Copley performance, which is no small feat. And he’s certainly not the only one. Everyone in this movie is delightful, especially the three ostensible leads, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, and Cillian Murphy. They all knocked it out of the park, and convinced me that Armie Hammer really needs to be in more movies. And his performance, along with all of the other male actors in the movie, help hammer in an interesting theme that I noticed in the film.

Men are idiots and ruin everything. Especially when they let their balls do their thinking for them, relying on show-boating and machismo. This should have been a simple business transaction. There was money, there as goods, and there was an assumption that these things would be exchanged for each other. But things almost immediately get screwed up when every goddamn man in the movie has to try and show that he’s the toughest. They’re constantly negging each other, tossing off little put-downs to try and show who is on top. And that’s before Steve ruins everything by refusing to just admit that he did something shitty and apologize to defuse the situation. Because once he does that it falls down a slippery slope and reaches the point that none of them can get out alive. All because they’re stupid men, trying to show how tough they are. And that’s really one of the big problems with the world. It’s one of the biggest problems in history. Men being idiots and escalating issues because they want to be big and tough. Sometimes it leads to wars and sometimes it leads to a bunch of idiots dying in an abandoned factory. But it always leads to trouble.

Free Fire was written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley, directed by Ben Wheatley, and released by A24, 2017.

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