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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Hardcore Henry

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth

Director: Ilya Naishuller

Writer: Ilya Naishuller


This is a film that certainly lives up to its title; hardcore is definitely the word to describe the content of Hardcore Henry. In its attempt to be a movie that looks and feels like a video game Hardcore Henry does not hold back on any count. Naishuller knew exactly what kind of approach he wanted to take with this film and he went for it at a full sprint, guns blazing, and screaming at the top of his lungs. Whatever faults this film might have, and there are a few, I nevertheless want to commend it for the utter commitment given to its format and style. While video game movies are hardly new, none of them have ever gone as far as Hardcore Henry to try and capture the uniquely immersive visual experience of playing a video game. A common criticism used so often in reviews of video game movies that it has practically become a cliché is that they feel more like watching somebody play a video game rather than playing it yourself. Though hardly a perfect movie, I believe that Hardcore Henry has come closer than any other film to capturing that sensation.

The film is viewed entirely in the first-person through the eyes of Henry, who wakes up in a lab on an airship. He is greeted by a scientist called Estelle (Haley Bennett) who reveals that she is his wife and that she has revived and rebuilt him after an accident that has left him amnesiac and mute. Some mercenaries, led by the telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), invade the airship and so Henry must make his escape using his new cybernetic body and enhanced abilities. He lands in Moscow where he is separated from his wife before falling into the company of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). Jimmy is a mysterious figure who seems to understand what is going on and who keeps appearing and reappearing throughout the events of the movie even after meeting a number of gruesome deaths. Through the insanity that ensues Henry must survive the mercenaries being sent after him and solve the mystery of who he is and why he is being targeted.

This film sets out to capture the quality of a first-person shooter which is why it adopts a story that is more action-based than character-driven. The action is intense, relentless and creative but it can also be tiresome and gratuitous. After about 20-30 minutes when you start getting used to the gimmick of the first-person perspective you gradually start to remember that you are in fact watching a movie and not playing a video game. The distinction is important because the issue of immersion is perhaps the greatest challenge facing this film. If the viewer is not actively involved or personally invested in the action, then the gimmick is eventually going to wear off. Since direct participation is impossible, the best the movie can do is provide the viewer with a character they can follow and with whom they can identify. This is where the film falls short. It is common for the protagonists of FPS games to be largely silent and nondescript because it makes it easier for the player to use them as vessels for their own personalities. Since we have no control over Henry however we have no choice but to view him as his own character. The lack of a personality therefore proves to be a great hindrance as it leaves little for the viewer to hold on to.

There is one character in this film who brings much life to the table and that is Jimmy. In what Sharlto Copley has described as his most physically demanding performance to date, Jimmy is a strange man who keeps appearing throughout Henry’s ordeal despite dying time and time again. Each time he reappears he comes with a new look and personality. Over the course of the film we see him as a dutiful army soldier, a cocaine-addicted womaniser, a hippie biker, a song and dance man and many more. It is a truly insane idea for a character which is exactly what you need for an insane movie such as this. However I must say that I wasn’t particularly convinced by the movie’s villain or by Henry’s wife. I found the former to be pretty weak and the latter to be pretty dull. For me it was Jimmy alone who saved this movie from being 90 minutes of mindless violence.

With that said those who watch Hardcore Henry looking for some mindless violence will not be disappointed. Every time Henry comes into a conflict with the human cannon fodder sent by Akan to take him down, the level of action is turned up to eleven. There is blood and explosions aplenty, an immeasurable body count and a variety of weapons and settings used for a good number of imaginative fight scenes. I however was kind of done with the action scenes about halfway through the movie. Without a character or a coherent story to follow I eventually found the action to be almost monotonous in its persistence and endlessness. Nevertheless there are many viewers for whom the story and characters will be entirely irrelevant and they are the ones who will enjoy the movie the most. Overall I’d say that I did enjoy the movie and was certainly impressed by its format but I also think that once was enough. In terms of content there just isn’t enough that warrants a second viewing.

★★★

Chappie

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell


People seem really unsure about what to make of Neill Blomkamp these days. The South African writer/director has made two major films prior to this one. The first, District 9, was critically praised and the second, Elysium, was critically panned. Therefore, with the release of his third major film, critics and audiences are curious to see where it will fall. Personally I think this film is ok. Not great but not terrible either. I do think that Blomkamp has the potential to make great films, but there are certain fatal flaws that are holding him back. Chappie has the makings of a great, insightful film with big themes and ideas but it ends up falling flat due to the characters and the narrative.

Blomkamp introduces us to a future Johannesburg in which robots have been introduced into the police force. They prove highly successful due to their state-of-the-art armour plating and their semi-AI programs that make them highly effective in combat situations. These robots are the inventions of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who is lauded for providing the weapons manufacturer Tetravaal with his creation much to the derision of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a former soldier with his own alternative machine that was rejected. When Deon finishes compiling a program of what he claims will be the world’s first true artificial intelligence, he decides to test it on a damaged robot despite his request being disapproved by his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). As he attempts to smuggle the robot out of the facility he is kidnapped by a team of gangsters who demand that he provide them with a failsafe for his machines that they can use for a large heist. When Deon reasons that such a task is impossible he instead offers them an artificially intelligent robot that they may use as they please. Deon is therefore allowed to continue his experiment and thus we are introduced to Chappie (Sharlto Copley).

Chappie is effectively a child, mentally and emotionally, but possesses a highly advanced mind that can learn and adapt at an exponential level. He comes into the world completely innocent of its ways and it falls down to Deon and the gangsters Yolandi and Ninja (played quite unconvincingly by the members of Die Antwoord) to raise him by offering their three different perspectives. Deon encourages Chappie to embrace his full creativity and potential, insisting that he can do anything he sets his mind to. Yolandi nurtures Chappie and forms a motherly bond with him. Ninja wants to use Chappie for his heist and tries to raise him as a gangster, teaching him how to shoot, fight and swear. Through Chappie’s upbringing the film tries to explore such themes as love, growth, the virtue of innocence, the potential of technology, and the imperfection of man, but fails to offer anything particularly new or insightful on these topics.

The characters of this film are its greatest weakness. Many of the characters, particularly the film’s main villain Vincent Moore, are unimaginative clichés who prove to be inconsistent in their motivations. The Hugh Jackman character was a wildly erratic engineer who used to be a soldier (which I guess is why he’s allowed to carry a gun in his office?) who appears to possess some sort of fanatical religious devotion that is never really elaborated and who constantly changes at the flip of a coin. He really is as nonsensical as he sounds. In addition are the South African gangsters who are very one-dimensional and who are similarly inconsistent in their motivations. Inconstancy is fine with a character like Chappie who is constantly learning new things and constantly evolving, but is annoying coming from these other characters. The rest are simply bland one-note characters played by talented, under-used actors (this film was a complete waste of Sigourney Weaver’s time).

The film has plenty of good qualities. The special effects, much like District 9, are excellent and authentically unpolished. The action and the humour are decent. Chappie himself is an interesting enough character that I was invested in his journey. He possesses a charming innocence that allows the audience to empathise with him. It therefore becomes distressing (in a good way) for the audience to watch the other characters taking advantage of Chappie’s childish naivety and to watch him become all too aware of the harsh realities of the world he lives in. Blomkamp has proven to everyone that he does have good ideas; his problem is in their application. He is clearly making a bold attempt to tackle grand, complex themes but whatever insights he might have to offer end up getting lost in the muddled plot and the illogical characters. The ending, again like District 9, is left open with the story left somewhat unresolved, presumably because Blomkamp is setting the scene for a sequel. It is my hope that Blomkamp can learn to overcome his weaknesses and return to the heights of District 9.

★★★