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.

★★★★

Sing Street

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aiden Gillen, Jack Reynor, Kelly Thornton

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney


John Carney has an intuitive understanding of the power of music in film that few other directors possess. In Once and Begin Again, music is a means of expression for the characters that reaches the audience in ways simple dialogue can’t. He finds value not only in the performance but in the creation of music as well. He uses music as a bridge between fantasy and reality. The music in his films can cross barriers, evoke memories and speak the unspeakable. In Once, for instance, he demonstrated how a couple could use music to express a romance that could never be allowed to happen in either statement or action. The effect captured in these films is a raw and delicate one, feeling at the same time both viscerally real and romantically impossible. In Sing Street Carney takes the effect even further by nostalgically harkening back to a lost time in 1980s Dublin where he reflects on both the memories and dreams of his youth.

It is 1985 in Dublin and Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a young schoolboy going through a rough time. His parents Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are on the verge of separating and money is tight, meaning that Conor has to be pulled out of his private school and sent to a free state-school where he becomes an outcast. Across the street from this school Conor glimpses the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and decides to talk to her. He learns that she plans on becoming a model and asks if she would like to be in a video for his band, a band that doesn’t actually exist yet. With the help of his schoolmates Darren (Ben Carolan), a budding entrepreneur, and Eamon (Mark McKenna), a talented multi-instrumentalist, Conor forms a rock group called Sing Street. Using the education in rock and roll provided by his brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), Conor undergoes a musical journey of self-discovery and love.

With Sing Street Carney has made what is easily one of the most charming and enjoyable films of the year. As in his previous films, the music is sublime and works here on two fronts. The songs are great simply as 80s style pop songs with clear influences from such groups as Duran Duran and The Clash, but they also work marvellously in relation to the story and characters. One highlight is ‘The Riddle of the Model’, Conor’s synthesised ode to Raphina, the video for which exemplifies the classic 80s rock video through and through despite being shot in a Dublin alley on a VHS camcorder. The film’s best sequence however is the performance of ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’, a fantasy where Conor imagines for a moment that all of his problems can be solved with an upbeat choreographed dance number like in the movies. It is this scene, more than any other, that best demonstrates Carney’s astonishing ability to create a film that is both cheerfully optimistic and heartbreakingly sad at the same time.

There is hardly a weak link in the cast so it’s difficult to decide who to single out for praise. Obviously newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is to be commended for playing Conor, a young romantic going through a difficult time in his life and discovering music as a way to cope with it all. Lucy Boynton also shines as Raphina, an aspirational girl who isn’t as confident or indifferent as she pretends to be. Although both characters are fanciful in their worldviews and ambitions, the romance between them is hardly a fairy tale. Through the disappointment, disillusionment and heartbreak that they both experience, they learn the hard way that life isn’t always going to work out the way they want it to. They do however learn more about each other and themselves and are stronger, wiser and more hopeful for it. I also want to single out Jack Reynor as Brendan, the older brother who wasted his chance and wants to save Conor from making the same mistakes that he made.

Although there are some hard life lessons to be learned by these characters, Sing Street is nevertheless a hopeful film that holds a soft spot for dreams and fancies. The film is a marriage between kitchen sink realism and musical fantasy that moves, saddens and delights. It is a coming of age story that captures the angst, awkwardness and troubles of youth but also the impulsiveness, fancifulness and optimism. It is a nostalgic film that recalls the good times fondly and the bad times pensively. Fans of the 80s will certainly get a kick out of the wonderful soundtrack which features a good mix of original songs as well as some classics by Genesis, The Jam and Spandau Ballet, amongst others. Sing Street is an irresistibly charming film created by a master of cinematic music that will make you laugh, cry and smile throughout.

★★★★★