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.

★★★★

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Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★

Room

Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writer: Emma Donaghue


What Emma Donaghue and Lenny Abrahamson have done with Room is such an incredible achievement that it almost defies description. To take such a dark, disturbing concept and turn it into something beautiful and inspiring is nearly impossible. Yet Room tackles its subject matter with such humanity and heart that I found myself greatly moved and deeply touched. This film depicts the tale of a woman who has suffered an unimaginable trauma by being held and used against her will and cut off from the entire world for almost a decade. Yet, while the film never ignores or undermines her profound suffering, it isn’t the focus of the film. Instead the focus is on the one good, wholesome thing to come out of this ordeal, her son. By depicting this story from the boy’s perspective, a person with a pure and innocent outlook on life, Room is able to transform what should be a tale of suffering and depravity into a tale of hope and love. I haven’t seen a film that has depicted such a serious matter from a child’s perspective with such insight and empathy since To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) is five-years-old and has spent his entire life living inside Room. There is no ‘the’ because Room is the only room he has ever known. He has no conception of existence beyond these four walls. With him is Ma (Brie Larson) who, for seven years now, has been the prisoner of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), the man who kidnapped her when she was seventeen. Together in the ten-by-ten-foot windowless Room Jack’s life is one of games, TV and hearing stories from Ma about a world that cannot possibly be real. Every now and then Jack has to sleep in Wardrobe because Old Nick has come for one of his visits but otherwise it’s just them and Room. As Ma gets closer to her breaking point however and Jack’s curiosity grows, she hatches a plan for them to escape Room and return to the outside world.

If another director had made this film they might have decided to stress Room’s small size to emphasise Ma’s claustrophobia, confinement and despair. Abrahamson however takes the opposite approach and allows Room to appear bigger than it really is. After all this film is being told from Jack’s perspective and to him Room is the entire world. It is the biggest thing he can possibly imagine and what we see as a wall he sees as the edge of the universe. To have this one character define the environment rather than have the environment define this other character is an ingenious move on Abrahamson’s part. Donaghue’s writing is also a crucial part of what makes this film work so well. Her dialogue is so simple and natural that she is able to tap directly into the core of these character’s feelings and express them in such an affecting way. Jack’s narration in particular, when he outlines everything he knows and can do, provides such a poignant insight into this character’s outlook and innocence that you’re never sure whether you should be laughing or crying.

Whoever discovered Tremblay deserves a medal because as Jack he gives a better performance than some of this year’s Oscar contenders. Some of the credit should go to Abrahamson for knowing how to direct this boy but Tremblay himself is the one in front of the camera and his performance is what drives this film. What is so striking about Jack is not that he is unsuspectingly living this unusual, twisted lifestyle but that he is in fact a completely normal kid. He jumps, shouts, laughs, cries, loses his temper and shares a strong and loving relationship with his mother. Larson as Ma is just as much of a star as Tremblay is. Her balance between joy and despair as she lives this disparaging, oppressive life with her bright and lovable son is moving in its authenticity and subtlety. One particular speech she gives when she desperately tries to convince her son that there is such a thing as an outside world and that it is where they really belong had me on the verge of tears.

The parts of the film that I’ve discussed just about cover the first act and that’s where I want to leave it. Room is, amongst many things, a story of discovery which is why I think the story that follows is one that the viewer should discover for themselves. I think that the trailer gives too much of the plot away because the uncertainty of what comes next is such an integral part of what makes Room such an astonishing film. The challenges that these two characters face and the growth that they experience is so heartrending and extraordinary that I dare not give it away. Films like Room that are so effective in their rawness and simplicity and which convey such a deeply moving portrait of humanity do not come often and should be treasured when they do.

★★★★★