Free Fire

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley


When it comes to action films, there is often a certain detached quality that can make them somewhat unfulfilling to watch. As much as I enjoy, say, watching James Bond take on a sinister villain or a dozen henchmen, it can get a little disaffecting when Bond is able to shrug off every blow he’s dealt, every car crash he’s in and every injury he suffers from an elaborate, deadly gadget like it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s just more fun when people get hurt. Wheatley takes this to an extreme with Free Fire, a movie where the injuries suffered are altogether smaller in scale than the atypical Hollywood blockbuster (single bullet wounds, falling rocks, shards of broken glass, etc.) but are still painful enough to affect the outcome of this haphazard gunfight. Not only is it more authentic, it’s funny as well because many of these injuries like banging your fingers or falling over and spraining your leg are the kinds of things that we can relate to. To see these kinds of things happen in a setting such as this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable farce.

The film is set in 1970s Boston and starts off when Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilente) set out to meet two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) for a weapons deal. They meet outside a warehouse and wait there for Christine (Brie Larson), an intermediary, and Ord (Armie Hammer), a representative for the arms dealer they are all meeting. They are led inside and are introduced to Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the arms dealer, and his associates Martin (Babou Ceesday), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). As the weapons deal proceeds, a series of tensions, grudges and misunderstandings between the gangsters emerge and intensify until they finally erupt violently. Once the shooting begins, everyone in the room scatters and takes cover and must then work out how to escape with either the money, the weapons, or even just their lives.

In terms of plot, Free Fire is essentially a 90-minute gunfight (kind of like how Mad Max: Fury Road was essentially a two-hour car chase). The fun comes in how the gunfight unfolds and how the characters interact with one another. Wheatley has a masterful command of both the geography and the continuity with a keen, continuous awareness of where each character is and what kind of injury they’ve suffered. The whole act unfolds much like a game of chess. Whenever any of the pieces make their moves, Wheatley knows exactly what the outcome will be depending on the other pieces’ positions on the board and acts accordingly. He knows who is in whose sights, he knows which characters are incapacitated or handicapped by which injuries, and he knows where each character wants to go or who/what it is they want to reach. Throw in some external elements like the rubble or the arrival of some extra shooters to add a little chaos into the mixture and what we get is 90-minutes of wonderfully directed anarchy.

The wounds suffered here are largely minor, most of them being inflicted on such parts as the hands, ankles and ears, but are still so painful that, once each character has suffered one injury or another, the bungling shootout finds itself at a stalemate. There’s a lot of ducking and crouching involved as at least half of these characters are unable to even remain upright. The cinematography follows suit, making use of low angles and slow crawls to covey this sense of being pinned down. The film also take place in real time, or at least feels like it does, making us appreciate the agony and anxiety overcoming these goons with each and every painstaking second. The longer the impasse is drawn out, the more desperate and wrathful they become, and so the more intense the fight becomes.

Free Fire is a crazy film and so it allows its cast to have a bit of fun, dressing them up in flamboyant costumes and letting all of them, especially Copley, chew up all the scenery they like. It’s funny enough watching a whole bunch of incompetent criminals trying to kill each other, but it’s even funnier when some of them are thoroughly loathsome and unlikeable people who probably deserve to be shot. The clash in personalities is awesome and the actors are all having the time of their lives playing them. The film has drawn many comparisons to Reservoir Dogs and, like Tarantino, Wheatley has found that delicate balance where we are drawn in enough that the violence feels real but are detached enough that it we can still recognise it as movie violence. That’s why we can wince at all the bloody, fiery, head-crushing moments and yet still laugh at them. This film is neither Wheatley’s nor Jump’s most ambitious or surprising film, but it does what it does very well and makes for good watching from beginning to end.

★★★★

High-Rise

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump


While watching High-Rise I was very much reminded of Lord of the Flies. Like Golding’s celebrated novel, High-Rise depicts the collapse of civilisation and the ascendancy of disorder, savagery and anarchy. However, while Lord of the Flies was in essence a portrait of the darkness and evil that exists in all men’s hearts, High-Rise is a social commentary that raises themes of class, technology and power. The apartment complex where all these characters live is one where flat assignments and relationships between neighbours are determined by social status. The inequitable distribution of such necessaries as water and electricity speaks of the economic situation of the 70s, the decade Ballard wrote the novel, which remains very much relevant today. The residents of this building are isolated from the rest of the world and suffer from severe detachment and alienation. It is a film that speaks of a bad situation getting continually worse with no hope of restoration in sight.

Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a young doctor, moves into the 25th floor of a lavish tower block where he finds himself both seduced and bewildered by the way of life. Governing this building is its architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who rules from above in his penthouse apartment, unreachable to those who are not invited or summoned. Amongst Laing’s neighbours are Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a loyal advocate for Royal, and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker determined to expose the injustices exercised within the building. Through them Laing discovers the belligerent tension between the occupants of the upper and lower flats and bears witness to the complex loyalties and acts of provocation that result. As the situation grows more volatile it is only a matter of time until chaos erupts and the state of affairs is destroyed through violence and bloodshed.

High-Rise is set in a dystopic future of the 2000 A.D. kind that the writers and filmmakers of the 1970s might have imagined. Nearly the entirety of its story is set in the imposing tower with its dark interiors, oppressive architecture and intricate layout. Wheatley makes marvellous use of his setting and conveys an acute sense of being trapped and confined. The tower block was specially designed to be self-sustaining, complete with its own gym, swimming pool and shopping market, and so there is seldom a reason to step outside into the empty landscape. At one point two characters step into the parking lot only to discover that they’ve long since forgotten where they’ve left their cars. Through the use of montage Wheatley is also able to convey a sense of disorientation as the situation in the tower grows more explosive. We know that this chaotic breakdown takes place over the course of three months but our sense of time becomes distorted as the days meld into one another. Wheatley’s depiction of the horror that unfolds as chaos and disorder become rampant is unrelenting in its brutality and stunning in execution, particularly one sequence involving a kaleidoscope.

Hiddleston delivers a top-notch performance as an outsider slowly conforming himself to the way of life in the tower block. On the surface he is calm and immaculate but there is a hint of melancholy and madness that is gradually brought out by the increasingly unstable environment he has inhabited. Initially he seeks to achieve some form of balance between the two opposing classes, forming friendships with those below and arranging trysts with those above and is very much the observer to the catastrophe that is inevitably to follow. The rest of the ensemble is a collection of peculiar characters following a conformist way of life that is doomed to collapse. Evans shines as the deplorable, misogynistic Wilder whose quest to challenge the higher ups and expose their tyranny somehow makes him as close to a moral voice as a twisted world such as this can produce. Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss both provide highlights as single mothers of different social classes who become exasperated by this way of life and its subsequent downfall.

My main problem with High-Rise is that by the time the third act started I was ready for it to be over. So exhausting was the film’s constant violence, wild characters and disturbing subject matter that I, along with other members of the audience, was utterly drained as the film approached its climax. Perhaps this was intentional on the film’s part, to weary me with its relentless nature in order to drive its point home. This film has a clear point to make about society and is unmistakable in its approach. The film ends on a similar note to John Carpenter’s The Thing where, just when you think it’s all over, it leaves you with a hint that the worst is yet to come. Even though I felt that the film did lose momentum towards the end and thought that the narrative struggled at certain points, High-Rise is overall a well-crafted film with challenging themes that packs a real wallop.

★★★★